The Neuroscience of Empathy and Compassion

Why when we see someone in pain, it somehow causes us pain as well? Empathy and compassion are two feelings that are invoked when we see the suffering and misfortune of another. The moment we are born, we interact with our social environment. “Empathy is really important for understanding others’ emotions very deeply, but there is a downside of empathy when it comes to the suffering of others,” says Olga Klimecki, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.  When we “empathize,” we share the other person’s feelings but when we “sympathize” or show “compassion” we do not necessarily share the same feeling.

 

Empathy is a gateway to compassion. It’s understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating. Compassion comes out of one's need or feeling to help someone else, it could be because you understand that other person is in need of help. Compassion builds empathy in long run. Therefore, empathy can be painful while compassion can be an ever giving, joyful, state of being. Living a compassionate life can be learned – it is not just something that some ‘extra-good’ people are born with.

 

The question of how “people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others” is the focus of research in social psychology. The field of neuroscience has recently focused on studying the affective and social brain. A new interdisciplinary field, social neuroscience, has emerged from the union of classical cognitive neuroscience and social psychology. Recent neuroscientific research has addressed classical social psychological issues such as people’s ability to understand other people’s minds —their beliefs, intentions, and feelings.

 

Researchers have identified the Neuroscience of Empathy that the tendency to be egocentric is naturally present in human beings – but that a part of your brain recognizes a lack of empathy and autocorrects. This specific part of human brain is called the right supramarginal gyrus. When this part doesn't function properly—or when one have to make quick decisions—the researchers found that one’s ability for empathy is greatly reduced. This area of the brain helps us to differentiate our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion. This supramarginal gyrus is a unit of the cerebral cortex and is located at the interface of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. Studies shows that  this is located more towards the front of the brain.

 

Recent study also suggests that we can better cope with others’ negative emotions by strengthening our own compassion skills. They found that the compassion training led participants to experience significantly more positive emotions i.e. can better cope with distress than they did before the training—and they coped better than a control group that did not receive the compassion training. Through compassion training, we can increase resilience and approach stressful situations with more positive affect,” says Klimecki. This positive emotional approach was accompanied by a change in brain activation pattern: Before the training, participants showed activity in an “empathic” network associated with pain perception and unpleasantness; after the training, activity shifted to a “compassionate” network that has been associated with love and affiliation.

 

The main outcome is that we can shape our emotional reactions, and can alter the way we feel and respond to certain situations. And that, “Our emotions are not set in stone.”-says Klimecki.