Sharing

This post is based on the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Empathy can be broken down into three components: sharing, thinking about, and caring about. Sharing involves sharing experiences, emotional feelings, and personal distress. Zaki elaborates using this anecdote. He asks us to imagine we’re a senior in college, walking with a close friend to his apartment. On our way in he checks his mailbox, then freezes. He says, “Holy shit. This is it.” You know what he means. You’ve seen him work relentlessly for three years in hope of getting into medical school, and into one program in particular. He’s talked with you maybe thirty times since applying, alternately anxious, helpful, or both. You rush upstairs, and he opens the envelope. His face contorts, and you lean forward, for a moment not knowing whether he’s ecstatic or upset. It becomes apparent that he is not crying happy tears.

Zaki continues, “As your friend collapses into a heap, you might frown, slum, and even tear up yourself. Your mood will probably plummet. This is what empathy researchers call experience sharing: vicariously taking on the emotions we observe in others. Experience sharing is widespread—people “catch” one another’s facial expressions, bodily stress, and moods, both negative and positive. Our brains respond to each other’s experiences and thoughts as if we were experiencing those states ourselves.

Experience sharing is the closest we come to dissolving the boundary between self and other. It is empathy’s leading edge. It is evolutionary ancient, occurring in monkeys, mice, and even geese. It comes online early in life: Infants mimic each other’s cries and take on their mothers’ distress. And it occurs at lightning speed. Seeing your friend grimace, you might mimic his face in a fraction of a second.”

Experience sharing provided the foundation of empathy science. Before the word “empathy” existed philosophers such as Adam Smith described “sympathy,” or “fellow feeling” in ways that tightly match experience sharing. For instance Smith writes that “by changing places in fancy with the sufferer…we come to either conceive or to be affected by what he feels.” Zaki summarizes, “From ‘emotion contagion’ in psychology to mirroring in neuroscience, experience sharing has long been the most famous piece of empathy.”

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