For a long time, empathy was thought of as an emotion, or a willful behavior — in the same category as kindness or compassion. As such, it was subject to whatever societal biases we have for “the softer things.” And while it may turn out that kindness and compassion also have a biological basis, it is crystal clear that empathy does.
It’s dangerous to be too certain about anything to do with the brain and human behavior, given our relatively primitive understanding of both and the link between them. Isaac Newton was quite certain about physics, but he was an alchemist and could not be very certain about chemistry, since too little was known about it at the time. That’s my stance on psychology in the broadest sense.
Still, we do know some things.
One idea that was gained some currency is the notion of mirror neurons. Here’s an excerpt from an article written for doctors that introduces the concept:
Research in the neurobiolgy of empathy has changed the perception of empathy from a soft skill to a neurobiologically based competency (9). The theory of inner imitation of the actions of others in the observer has been supported by brain research. Functional magnetic resonance imaging now demonstrates the existence of a neural relay mechanism that allows empathic individuals to exhibit unconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others to a greater degree than individuals who are unempathic (10). Patients unconsciously mimic the actions and facial expressions of others through brain mechanisms that mirror the actions of others by stimulating the same motor and sensory areas in the observers’ brains as the person they are observing. This mirroring capacity has been demonstrated at the level of single muscle fibers. If a person’s hand muscle is pricked by a fine needle, for example, the same motor and sensory areas are activated in the brain of an observer (11).
What that means is essentially that when you see your friend wave at you across the room, your brain imitates the wave motion in every respect except actually transmitting that “order” to your arm. Then it recalls the emotion that is usually associated with that set of motions and says “Aha, I was friendly when I waved. My friend must be doing something friendly toward me! Yeah” and you may choose to wave back, smile or whatever.
It helps to think of empathy in evolutionary terms. Imagine you are a sheep in a flock. We now know that sheep recognize many facial expressions from their fellow herd-members. How does Sheep 1 know that Sheep 2 is being friendly, and not aggressive, when it looks at it a certain way? Mirror neurons. As far as I’ve been able to read, all mammals have this mechanism. It doesn’t require extreme intelligence, speech, or even will to exercise it. We just do it.
Current research is discovering that empathy is more complex than just mirror neurons, that it involves other parts of the brain, and that it’s behavioral output is not always what we might think. There’s plenty of room for mushy thinking and junk science around empathy, but there’s also solid evidence. So we’ll have to stay tuned.
In addition, emerging fields like behavioral economics are helping us to understand the irrational side of our natures. Often, they complement the work around empathy by exposing the interesting ways we defy logic.
But the reason I made so much of empathy in Replay Earth is that I don’t think we as a society value our own ability to connect at a basic level. Empathy is neither about hate or love — it’s about the fact that we have ways to understand each other. And maybe we don’t currently give them much credence, but if we came to value them more highly and paid more attention to them, we might find that they can clarify social interactions. And that might, indeed, reduce our fear of The Other, whomever that happens to be this year.
More about empathy:
Of course, if you search for “the science of empathy” you’ll find many more articles.