No Hard Feelings: Empathy
Empathy (n.) the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation, from Greek pathos meaning ‘feeling’ and prefix ‘em’ (assimilated from ‘en’) meaning ‘in’ (pathos is thought to have origins in the Proto-Indo European root kwent(h), ‘to suffer’).
Famously felt by Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Famously not felt by Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. “My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone.”
Imagine a world without empathy. You have a particularly bad day, where everything that could go wrong does and upon explaining it to your partner, friend or colleague, are met with a blank and careless silence. You suffer a broken arm from a mountain bike accident and land yourself in the emergency room, groaning in pain, and you’re told to be quiet by one of the nurses.
And conversely, someone you know loses their job whilst navigating a divorce, and they break down in tears over coffee – but you just can’t seem to understand why they’re having such an emotional reaction. The coffee is pretty good, and your day has been fine – so what is there to feel upset about?
Before the 1890s, there was no such thing as empathy. But luckily it was just the word that had not yet been articulated – prior attempts to convey the feeling of living vicariously through someone else’s emotions was usually covered by the term ‘sympathy’, also derived from Greek pathos, ‘to feel’. However, where the prefix ‘sym’ means ‘with’, empathy’s prefix means ‘in’ – walking in someone else’s shoes, rather than alongside them.
Attempts to distinguish the precise act of embodying someone’s feelings began as an endeavour to explain the relationship between person and object. In the 1890s, a cutting-edge psychological concept was being developed on the European continent: einfühlung, literally ‘in-feeling’ or ‘vicarious sensation’. It was a physiological explanation for the pleasure of looking at inanimate objects, natural vistas, even weather.
The novelist Vernon Lee (born Violet Paget) conducted experiments, placing a friend in front of works of art and transcribing notes about what she felt. Before a cast of the Venus de Milo, shifts to her internal balance were reported that mimicked the sculpture’s design. In front of Grecian urns, there was a bulging sensation in her stomach, and in high-vaulted churches, her lungs felt expanded with air and space.
While their research may not stand up to today’s standards as concrete evidence, Lee’s experiments were an important step in popularising the translation of einfühlung into a new Greek word: empathy.
In the 1890s, a cutting-edge psychological concept was being developed on the European continent: einfühlung, literally ‘in-feeling’ or ‘vicarious sensation’.
Today, we think of empathy differently. It describes the emotional resonance between two people rather than between a person and object. It has also, in the space of 130 years, become one of the most revered and talked about emotions. We seek it out, applaud those to exhibit it in abundance and stigmatise those who don’t.
It is an expectation for most friends and family members, an overt requirement for certain professions (doctors, teachers, psychologists, writers) and an implicit condition of nearly all others (sales, consultancy, creative, manager). The ability to intuit the eagerness or reluctance of a client and respond accordingly, to feel an echo of distress within a family member and offer support, to experience elation alongside a friend are all foundational steps to building successful relationships.
The importance of empathy is agreed upon. The question has become whether or not it is something we do innately, or something we just learn. The debate centres on whether or not something called ‘mirror neurons’ exist within human brains. In the 1990s, neuroscientists discovered cells inside monkey brains that activate both when they experience emotion, and when they witness another animal experiencing emotion.
Perhaps the reason we are so enamoured with the idea of innate empathy, both in the 18th century and today, is because a physiological explanation would alleviate fears of a societal descent into selfishness and greed.
Their presence is yet to be proved inside human brains and some like Stanford professor Robert M. Sapolsky believes their role as mediators of imitation and empathy is an oversold idea. But the possibility of an innate physiological explanation for all human behaviour, cooperation and relationships has caused a stir of frothy excitement nonetheless. While the origins of the word may be traced back to the late 19th century, our desire to find a natural instinct to explain kindness is older.
“When we see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or arm,” wrote Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). “And when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer … this is the source of our fellow feeling.”
Thinking of empathy as a choice – rather than an evolved facet of our brains – is a more powerful lens to look at humanity through.
Despite the current lack of answers, it is our pursuit of the idea of mirror neurons that is perhaps the most indicting evidence of our human nature. Perhaps the reason we are so enamoured with the idea of innate empathy, both in the 18th century and today, is because a physiological explanation would alleviate fears of a societal descent into selfishness and greed.
While there is no conclusive evidence either way, history still proves that our ability to care for others and embody experiences different than our own is humanity’s superpower. Maybe thinking of empathy as a choice – rather than an evolved facet of our brains – is a more powerful lens to look at humanity through.
Despite our own adversities, fears, triumphs and desires, we still choose to embody others’ feelings – to recognise someone’s distress or happiness, to take their hand and to tell them: you are not alone.