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The Neuroscience of Empathy and Compassion

It is our ability to understand and cooperate with others that has mostly helped us to win against war on the planet. Our ability to be empathetic and to show compassion are emotional responses that have helped us tremendously in accomplishing this. These two distinct emotional responses that human beings use in more authentic communication are now gaining more and more positive attention.

When we are exposed to the intense suffering of another person, empathy is invoked. When we listen to someone with care – compassion can be felt for the other person. But these emotional responses are different and thus have different affects in communication.

Empathy is the ability to understand and experience the deep emotions of another. Deep emotional connections are hardly possible without the ability to fully understand ourselves and others. Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, states, “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.” 1

Empathy plays a large role in the success of our professional life too. A white paper from the Center for Creative Leadership points out that empathy is fundamental to leadership. Transformational leaders need empathy to show their followers they care. A data study conducted by the organization, showed that empathy toward others is positively related to job performance. 2

The term empath is growing on social media as a buzzword that people are identifying with, but we need to be mindful that too much empathy can weaken a person. As human-beings our aim should be to try to help others to grow. If we are too empathic we can run short of emotional or cognitive resources to help another and become overly sympathetic. This is why compassion has an upper hand over empathy in terms of helping another to grow and reach their potential. Below is the basic difference between the neuroscience of empathy and that of compassion.

The Neuroscience of Empathy

Empathy was first mentioned in neuroscience over half a century ago. Over the last several years there have been numerous studies to understand the science behind empathy. Social neuroscience has made significant progress in explaining the mechanisms behind the feeling of empathy. Based on a lot of evidence and research, it was earlier pointed out that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion.

However, a study conducted in 2009 shows that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon. It depends on various factors such as contextual appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the perspective adopted during observation of the other. 4 So it is important to understand one person’s experience and understanding of empathy maybe different from another person’s as we all have our own beliefs, and experiences as human beings. It is the human cognitive capacity to draw conclusions about beliefs, intentions, and thoughts of other people, this is to help us to create more safety, security and to help us to thrive.

Although numerous studies examined the neural mechanisms underlying empathy in humans, they largely focused on experience sharing and mentalizing due to the complexities of how we function.

Recent studies have further thrown light on the neural underpinnings of empathy. The empathetic simulations are observed across social species, and not something unique to humans. 5 According to ‘The Neuroscience of Empathy,’ published in 2018, emotional empathy and mentalizing may promote empathetic concern, which in also known as compassion. 6 It further states that individuals vary in their baseline empathic capacities and tendencies.

The Neuroscience of Compassion

It is true that empathy is somewhat required for humans to connect with each other on an emotional level. However, to be prosocial it is important to take empathy to the next level. In other words, being empathetic to someone does not motivate a person to move forward. That is where empathetic concern or compassion garners attention in social neuroscience. Compassion is defined as a complex internal state characterized by prosocial motivation to improve another person’s life or condition. 7

Various studies show that there are a few differences between empathy and compassion. During empathy, there is a network of brain areas that get activated. These areas are associated with a negative effect. On the other hand, when we experience compassion, the area around the medial orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum is activated. It is associated with feelings like warmth and concern. It leads to a positive effect.

Compassion training is really professional coach training, and the development of a number of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and leads to increased cooperation, trust, and the ability to empower another as well as improved psychological well-being and emotional health 8 Deepening our ability to have compassion improves our ability to effectively help others.

My experience is that empathy and compassion are very different and produce very different outcomes or responses when working with people as a professional mentor and coach. Empathy helps me to feel what a person is going through, this is therapeutic and allows me to understand their experience, but compassion allows me to ask questions that will enable them to move forward like ‘OK, I’m sorry this has happened, so what do you really want to accomplish so you can build a better life?’ Obviously timing and sensitivity are important, sometimes we need to have empathy. We all go through difficult times.

Comparing Empathy and Compassion

A notable study about empathy and compassion by neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki examined different experiment groups for compassion and empathy, revealed how the brain reacts to both. The two types of training have led to different emotions and attitudes toward action. The group which trained for empathy found the feeling uncomfortable and troublesome. On the other side, the group that trained for compassion was able to create positivity among the group members. This group exhibited more kindness and was more eager to help others compared to the empathy group. 9

Here is the takeaway – by improving our ability to provide compassion to others, which are essentially coaching skills, we can better cope with responses from other people and help them more. In Klimecki’s words, “Our emotions are not set in stone. Through compassion training, we can increase resilience and approach stressful situations with a more positive affect.”

Compassion or Empathy – What is required?

In summary, many research studies have now proven that there is a neurobiological mechanism behind our feelings of empathy or compassion. There is no doubt that both empathy and compassion are useful – to understand and relate to the experience of other people. With professional coach training it is possible for us to shape our emotional reactions and thus we can change the way we respond to others and situations. More than empathy, compassion helps in the well-being of self as well as others who need support. Compassion helps us to increase our resilience, improves social connections, and helps us in overall well-being, it also elicits a more positive response in others due to the prefrontal cortex of the brain being more activated, so a person is better able to take responsibility. The coaching response must never be manipulative, always genuine; but might be something like “I am genuinely sorry you are experiencing this in your relationship… let’s work together to help you move forward to build a better life.”

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    1. https://www.redefinednarrative.com/understanding-empathy-and-the-best-way-to-manage-empathy-fatigue/
    2. https://cclinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/empathyintheworkplace.pdf
    3. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Singer_2009.pdf
    4. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Claus_Lamm/publication/281218239_The_Social_Neuroscience_of_Empathy/links/5696360708ae4b80df38ffb1/The-Social-Neuroscience-of-Empathy.pdf
    5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154617301031
    6. https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199977925.001.0001/acprof-9780199977925-chapter-9
    7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128053089000208#:~:text=In%20other%20words%2C%20empathy%20entails,70%5D%2C%20%5B71%5D
    8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25247366/