The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. What is empathy and why it is important? Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. It is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings in a situation from their point of view, rather than your own.
Why is it important? Because if you learn how to emphasize with your friends, coworkers, and people around you and understand their point of view and where they are coming from you will be able to connect, communicate and interact with people at an optimum level, and use that understanding to guide your actions.
What is empathy?
The history of empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung, which means feeling into. The word was then introduced into the English language and was used initially to describe feelings towards aesthetics rather than human beings. For example, when you felt an emotional connection with a piece of artwork, you would use the word empathy. The work of philosophers and scientists helped expand the use of the word to people; they noticed that emphatic behaviors affect intimate relationships.
Recent experiments showed that physicians who attended communication skills training started showing more empathy. As a consequence, there were improved patient experiences, superior clinical outcomes, fewer medical errors, and higher physicians’ retentions. Empathy is not a born trait and doesn’t happen naturally for a lot of people, it can be taught, and it is an important skill to have when establishing intimate and professional relationships. Empathy is a conscious choice, but it needs practice, the more we practice empathy, the more intuitive and natural we become.
Another experiment showed interesting results demonstrating how humans do and can feel the pain of someone else. In this experiment, sixteen female volunteers were sent electrical shocks throughout their bodies. Their brain activity was scanned, and the scientists were particularly interested in the activation of the pain matrix, which is a set of brain areas that consistently respond to painful stimuli. The surprising and interesting result of this experiment was that the spouses of these volunteers although unharmed also showed activation of the pain matrix.
This was one of the first studies that demonstrate that we do feel pain for others but in a much less intense form. What is really happening to our brain when we feel empathy for someone else? Magnetic resonance imaging shows that a neural relay mechanism will cause an individual to unconsciously copy another person’s mannerism, posture, or facial expression. This explains how we can relate and be emphatic to someone else.
Why is empathy important?
When you have empathy, you can understand what a person is feeling in a given moment, and you can understand why other people’s actions make sense to them. Empathy is important because it helps us have great social interactions. Some people have fantastic natural empathy and can pick up how someone else is feeling just by looking at them. Some people only have a tiny amount of natural empathy and won’t notice that you are angry until you start yelling. Most people are somewhere in the middle.
In a world where a lot of young people spend a tremendous amount of time playing violent games or watching violent movies, my question is does being exposed to violence decrease your ability to empathize with others? The short answer to this question is Yes, it does. There are plenty of studies that show that exposure to real life and media violence increases aggressive and anti-social behavior, making them less likely to feel empathy for another person.
A 2015 study shows that most 18-year-olds will observe up to 6000 acts of violence in movies and television in just one year; add to this the alarming statistics that 50-70% of 15-year-old have witnessed real-life violence or have been assaulted in one way or another. Experiencing a large amount of violence has been shown to decrease emotional and physiological reactivity. Other studies show that televised violence has both short-term and long-term effects on emotional desensitization.
According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people have the ability to feel empathy, we have an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives. The few exceptions are psychopaths, narcissists, and sociopaths who are people who are unable to understand or relate to other people’s feelings and emotions.
The takeaway from all of this is that we all have the capacity to demonstrate empathy, but not all of us will take the time to do that. Empathy is not a born trait, we have to practice this art.
And this, my dear friend, is your Quest.
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Thanks—A most important reminder—empathy can be learned. But the opposite is also true: it can be unlearned or forgotten. Like most emotions connected with positive flourishing, it needs exercise, even when it is uncomfortable.