This post is based on an article by Emma Young titled “How sharing other people’s feelings can make you sick,” in the May 14, 2016 issue of the New Scientist. As this article notes empathy is undeniably a good thing. The primatologist Frans de Waal has suggested that being affected by another’s emotional state was the earliest step in our evolution as a collaborative species.
The distinction between what we and others feel isn’t terribly clear to our brains. Tania Singer and her colleagues demonstrated this in 2004 when they put 16 romantic couples into an MRI scanner. When they gave these volunteers a painful electric shock,this elicited activity in brain regions known to respond to physical pain and also in regions tuned to emotional pain. However, when volunteers saw their loved partners get a shock, no activity registered in their physical pain center, but their emotion regions lit up like fireworks. Subsequently many other studies have confirmed that this “empathy for pain” network exists, and that it does not distinguish whether the pain we’re observing is physical or psychological.
Moreover, we don’t just catch pain from those we are intimate with. People in the care giving professions such as hospice staff, nurses, psychotherapists, and pediatricians often see and feel the stress and pain of others, which leads to a kind empathy burnout. This empathy burnout has be given names such as “secondary traumatic stress” and vicarious traumatization.” Symptoms include lowered ability to feel empathy and sympathy, increased anger and anxiety, and more absenteeism. Studies have linked these symptoms with an indifferent attitude to patients, depersonalization and poorer care. Apparently anyone can catch stress any time they understand someone else’s pain and share in it. This activate empathy for the individual’s pain network. Singer’s research ha shown that for some people the physical effects of emotional contagion apply even when they observe a person they don’t know suffering distress. Experiments have shown that people who watched a 15-minute newscast reported increased anxiety afterwards, with their anxiety decreasing only after an extended relaxation exercise.
Other research has shown that empathy can be regulated, just as emotions can be regulated. Christian Keysers and his colleagues have looked at how people diagnosed with psychopathy, who are commonly thought to lack all capacity for empathy, react when the see images of people in pain. Initially the team presented images without any instructions as to what to feel. Predictably, the psychopaths showed less activity in areas association with areas associated with empathy for sensations, and in the insult, than the brains of healthy people. When Keysers asked these psychopaths to consciously empathize, something very different happened; their brain responses were identical to healthy people.
Research has shown that the training Buddhist monks undergo give them a heightened ability to manipulate their neural circuitry for empathy. Richard Davidson asked these monks to engage in a form of compassion meditation known as loving kindness meditation, in which one is encouraged to gradually extend warmth and care from your self and others. Davidson found that this process changed the firing of the monks’ neural circuitry. It suppressed activity in the anterior insult and in the amygdala a regions involved in threat detection but recruited during empathic responses. But when one monk was asked to empathize with suffering instead of engaging in compassion, his empathy for pain network lit up, and almost immediately, he begged the proctor to stop the experiment, calling the feeling unbearable. The subtle distinction is that compassion is feeling for and not with the other.
Research is being done on training people this distinction between compassion and empathy. The initial results are promising. Let us hope that such training will be readily available to caretakers and others in need of this training.