Why do we feel badly when others are suffering? Empathy is a quality not everyone possesses, and many people confuse empathy with sympathy.
Our emotions serve an evolutionary purpose. Trust is fostered when we give or receive help from others. Fear and disgust have taught us to avoid certain things that make us sick or hurt us. Happiness lets us know that the decisions we’ve made are keeping us on the right track.
Among others, there is one group of emotions that are less well-understood and are involved in the way in which humans connect with others. These are empathy, sympathy and compassion. While these emotions have important distinctions, let’s try to think of them as three different stops on the road towards human interconnectedness. Each of them is a pro-social emotion that we have fostered and evolved with to develop deep social bonds with each other.
Indeed, many cultures place value on one’s ability to feel and express sympathy, empathy and compassion. What’s more, countless religious doctrines contain teachings that emphasize the importance of building one’s ability to feel compassion especially.
So, let’s journey down this road together and explore the differences between empathy, sympathy and compassion. We’ll start with sympathy, as it’s likely the most common one, although perhaps not the most important:
Sympathy is perhaps the best-understood way in which we respond to the suffering of others, and it is certainly expressed more easily than its cousins, empathy and compassion.
Sympathy is the first stop on the road to interconnectedness. When you witness the suffering of another and are able to understand why they feel the way that they do, you are practising sympathy.
The most common way to describe sympathy is to imagine watching someone grieve the loss of a loved one. Most of us have at least one person who is near and dear to us. When we see someone grieving the loss of someone they care about, whether we know them or not we can see the pain on their face and understand why it hurts. If someone has lost their parent, for example, it might not be a very far stretch for you to imagine what they’re going through, even if both of your parents are still with you. The point is that you can imagine how hard it would be to lose a parent and can understand what they’re going through.
If you think of your brain as a factory, the different lobes and regions could be imagined as having different, specialized tasks to keep the factory running smoothly. One such system is called the limbic system, and it plays a part in influencing our moods and emotional responses, among other things. When we feel sympathy (or empathy or compassion, for that matter) a specific region of the cerebral cortex called the anterior insular cortex becomes activated. While there is some debate about which brain structures can be included in our limbic system, some scientists consider the anterior portion of our insulae to be included in the limbic system due to their involvement in a number of emotional functions including perception, self-awareness, interpersonal experience and, of course, empathy.
Empathy is our second stop on the road to interconnectedness. Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably but they in fact differ in one crucial way.
While we might be able to understand someone’s grief and sympathize with them, we empathize with others when we can understand and feel what they are feeling alongside them. We can empathize with someone who has lost a parent if we have experienced loss as well. You may also feel empathy in a physical way, for instance, watching someone cut their finger and feeling the pain in your finger too.
The ability to feel empathy is not limited to painful emotions, however. Have you ever started laughing just because someone else was laughing? If you have, that’s yet another way in which you experience empathy.
That’s thanks to specialized cells called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons were discovered quite by accident only around 30 years ago. They exist in various locations throughout our nervous system and become activated both when we perform a task individually and when we see others performing that same task or one similar task.
The discovery of mirror neurons has raised a myriad of questions that scientists are still trying to answer, but the general consensus is that somehow, mirror neurons are a pivotal step in understanding not only how we do something (or feel someway), but also why we do.
Does Everyone Feel Empathy?
It can sometimes be hard to conjure feelings of empathy for others. If you are in a depressive state or are preoccupied with your own problems, you might just feel lower levels of empathy than at other times.
There are some conditions, however, that can leave a person unable to experience empathy. Psychopathy is the most obvious example, but a deficit or lack of empathy can also be used to describe narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, alexithymia and an autism spectrum disorder. Most of these disorders are diagnosed by observing behaviour, however, there may be a genetic component to psychopathic tendencies. Mutations of a certain gene called MAOA, referred to sometimes as the ‘warrior gene’, may alter your ability to break down mood signaling neurotransmitters like noradrenaline and dopamine, and it may be linked to increased violent and aggressive behaviour.
Our final stop on the road to interconnectedness is compassion. The ability to feel compassion includes our understanding of someone else’s pain, our ability to suffer with them, and adds a desire to end their suffering. The Latin roots of the word literally translate to ‘to suffer with’.
When we feel compassion for others, we do what we can to alleviate their suffering. It’s not always possible to completely end someone’s pain, but there are some actionable steps we can take to at least lessen someone’s suffering. A few examples include
- Carrying more than your load of shared housework if your spouse is feeling run down, ill or is overwhelmed with stress
- Cooking and delivering meals to someone
- Donating money, food or clothing to people in need
- Taking care of someone when they’re sick
Often, it’s easier to feel compassion towards loved ones than to strangers, or people we feel we can relate to.
Consider, for example, this study which suggested that humans have a hard time feeling empathy or sympathy for people who are acting strangely. If the sufferer’s facial expression didn’t line up with what they were saying (smiling while telling a sad story, for instance) the experimental group felt low levels of compassion or none at all.
However, it is possible to build upon low levels of compassion and extend feelings of loving kindness to anyone. This is the theory behind the practice of a meditation technique called Metta.
The practice of Metta meditation involves sending out feelings of loving-kindness to yourself and others.
The benefits of meditation in its many forms include a reduction in stress and an increase in feeling positive emotions like hopefulness, optimism and joy. Exploring how these cognitive benefits can be expressed in our physical bodies is an exciting field in neuroscience, and Metta is no exception.
Unlike other forms of meditation, such as Vipassana (mindfulness), where the goal is to foster a state of awareness, the purpose of Metta is to foster a feeling of compassion towards yourself and then to extend that feeling to others. Regular practice can bring about positive change in regards to your mental health, making it easier for you to forgive and move on rather than hanging onto grudges or perceiving every injustice as a personal slight.
Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between empathy, sympathy and compassion, which do you think is the most important to practice?