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Empathy refers to the cognitive and emotional reaction of an individual to the observed experiences of another. It is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective; the ability to recognize, feel, and share the emotions of another person or even a fictional character. Empathy involves not only understanding a person’s condition from her perspective (a cognitive process) but also to share her emotions or distress (an emotional process). Empathy can be confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are all reactions to the predicament of others. The term comes from the psychologist Edward Titchner that, in 1909, translated the German word Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) as ‘empathy’. [1] [2] [3] [4]

According to Decety (2011), in the developmental psychology and social psychology disciplines, empathy is defined “as an affective response stemming from the understanding of another’s emotional state or condition similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel in the given situation.” Others define it as a specific set of congruent emotions - the feelings that are more focused on others than on the self. Another definition - derived from psychoanalysis - describes empathy has having two acts: the first is an identification with the other person, and the second an awareness of one’s own feelings after the identification, resulting in an awareness of the object’s feeling. [5]

There are several neural components that contribute to empathy. Indeed, one of them that received some notoriety is “mirror neurons”. Research on macaques showed that they are involved in reacting to emotions expressed by others and then reproducing them. These neurons are also present in humans and there have been some controversies in the fields of psychology, biology, and ethology over whether empathy is a uniquely human trait. Besides this, there is also the debate of whether empathy is an emotional or cognitive construct - sensing another’s feelings versus understanding another’s perspective. [1] [2] [6]

The lowest common denominator of all emphatic processes is that one individual is affected by another’s emotional or arousal state. [7] Shamay-Tsoory (2011) states that evidence supports a model with two distinct systems for empathy - an emotional system and a cognitive system. Emotional empathy has been described as “the capacity to experience affective reactions to the observed experiences of others or share a ‘fellow feeling’”, and cognitive empathy “as a cognitive role-taking ability, or the capacity to engage in the cognitive process of adopting another’s psychological point of view.” Emotional empathy can involve different related underlying processes such as emotional contagion, emotion recognition, and shared pain. Cognitive empathy, on the other side, involves making inferences regarding the other’s affective and cognitive mental states. According to Shamay-Tsoory (2011), while the two systems can work together, “they may be behaviorally, developmentally, neurochemically, and neuroanatomically dissociable.” [1]

Some researchers consider that empathy is not unique to humans since many of the same biological mechanisms are shared with other mammalian species. Yet, since humans possess high-level cognitive abilities like language, executive function, and theory of mind on top of older social and emotional capabilities, they are considered a special case. These evolutionary newer cognitive features expand the possible range of behaviors that can result from, or lack of, empathy. These can range from positive behaviors like caring for others - even towards individuals from different species - to negative behavior such as cruelty and dehumanization when there is a lack of empathy. Deficits in empathy are characteristic of several psychopathologies. Therefore, a better knowledge of the neural circuits that relate to empathy is essential to advance the understanding of interpersonal sensitivity, basic neural and cognitive mechanisms of emotion processing, the relation of these mechanisms with cognition and motivation, individual differences in personality traits, and mental health. [5]

Empathy-related behaviors manifest early in development; 6-month-old infants already show a preference for characters that help others over characters that are not cooperative. There are also suggestions that an early form of affective perspective-taking that does not rely on emotion contagion or mimicry occurs in children aged 18 to 25 months old. Evidence also points to prosocial behaviors (e.g. altruistic helping) emerging in early childhood, with one-year-old children beginning to comfort victims of distress. Children between 14 to 18 months also start displaying spontaneous and unrewarded helping behaviors. [5]

While today there is great interest in empathy research, between 1975 and 1995 there was a general lack of interest in this field of study. After this period, it regained scientific interest in the developmental and social psychology fields. Empathy evolved from an important component of ‘emotional intelligence’ to a multidisciplinary field of study that encompasses economics, evolutionary biology, and affective neuroscience. [5] [6]

Origins of empathy

According to de Waal (2008), “empathy allows one to quickly and automatically relate to the emotional states of others, which is essential for the regulation of social interactions, coordinated activity, and cooperation toward shared goals.” It is very probable that the evolutionary basis for empathy started in the context of parental care even before the human species had evolved. Human infants signal their state through smiling, crying, and to call the attention of the parents. There are analogous mechanisms that occur in other animals in which reproduction relies on feeding, cleaning, and warming of the infants. De Waal (2008) suggested that “avian or mammalian parents alert to and affected by their offspring’s needs likely out-reproduced those who remained indifferent.” [7]

Chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans share various parenting mechanisms with other placental mammals, such as internal gestation, lactation, and attachment mechanisms that involve neuropeptides (e.g. oxytocin). The development of parenting behavior in mammals paved way for an increased exposure and responsiveness to the emotional signals of others. [5]

Since humans are intrinsically social, with survival being dependent on social interactions with others, alliances, and accurate social judgments, it follows that specific neurobiological mechanisms evolved to perceive, understand, predict, and respond to the internal states of others. It has been suggested that empathic behavior evolved due to its contribution to genetic fitness. Once it evolved, it could be applied outside the parental-care context, according to the principle of motivational autonomy which states that motivation for a behavior becomes disconnected from its ultimate goal. This would lead to the empathic capacity playing a bigger role in the wider network of social relationships. This is exemplified when people send money to help distant disaster victims. In this case, empathy works beyond its original evolutionary context. [5] [7]

According to some researchers, the earliest system relating to empathy is the emotional contagion system (i.e. one person is affected by another’s emotional or arousal state). A more advanced system would be the cognitive empathic perspective-taking system, which involves higher cognitive functions. As evidence to this, emotional contagion has been seen in rodents, while the rudimentary traits of cognitive aspects of empathy have only been described in the closest living relatives of humans, the chimpanzees. Also, emotional contagion is observed earlier in development than cognitive perspective-taking abilities. [1]

Theory of mind

Theory of mind is one of the bases of empathy. It is the process of understanding another person’s perspective, to put someone else’s shoes, imagine their thoughts and feelings. It is the ability to understand that others see things differently, have different beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, etc. It appears at about four years of age and improves over time. It was suggested that theory of mind has its neural basis in the mirror neurons. These neurons fire when a particular action is carried out, or when the same action is observed in others. This enables the interpretation of the actions and assume the beliefs, intents, or desires of other people. [1] [3]

Advantages of empathy

The main advantage of empathy is that it increases prosocial behaviors, playing a crucial role in human social interactions as an essential component for healthy coexistence. Empathy is also the basis of intimacy and close connection; without it, relationships become emotionally shallow. [2] [5] [8]

The absence of empathy would mean that the inner selves and feelings of people who are close would remain a mystery. Empathy also avoids the continuation of bad behavior since a person becomes aware of the pain it is causing to another. Again, in these cases, the lack of empathy can lead to devastating results. [8]

Evolutionary, empathy is important because it promotes parental care, social attachment, and prosocial behavior. It assists in social interactions, group activities, teaching and learning, all essential to the human life. [3]

Characteristics of empathy

While most people associate empathy with intuition, as something closer to a gut reaction than a function of reasoning, in fact, empathy is not based on intuition. Instead, psychologists suggest that empathy consists of emotion sharing and executive control to regulate and modulate the experience - both supported by specific neural systems that interact with each other. [8]

MRI imaging experiments have improved the theoretical understanding of empathy by relating specific brain regions to the experience of empathy. Furthermore, other actions relevant to the understanding of empathy such as mimicry and mirroring also take place in specific regions of the brain. There are several brain areas involved in creating the sense of empathy. According to Decety (2011), these include the cortex, “the autonomic nervous system (ANS), hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), and endocrine systems that regulate bodily states, emotion, and reactivity.” [5] [8]

Another characteristic of empathy is that the capacity for it is innate, although it is a behavior that needs development. The identification and regulation of emotions by infants is done through dyadic interactions with their caretakers (mainly the mothers). A mother that is attentive to the child’s needs and cues allows the infant to develop emotionally, laying the foundation for the child’s sense of self, sense of other, and eventually empathy. [8]

The capacity for empathy is also variable; it differs from person to person according to the level of their own emotional intelligence (the ability to know what one is feeling, to label and name different emotions precisely, and use one’s emotions to inform thinking). The more connected a person is with her emotions, the capacity to empathize will also be greater. [8]

Finally, psychology’s interpretation of empathy as an individual’s trait may have limitations. Indeed, anthropologists have suggested that empathy might be dyadic, noting that that the person who is the target of empathy is as important as the empathizer. Besides this, they suggest that cultural and social norms also act as moderators of empathy. [8]

Empathy and associated phenomena

The term empathy has been used as a description of various phenomena such as “feelings of concern for other people that create a motivation to help them, experiencing emotions that match another individual’s emotions, [and] knowing what the other is thinking or feeling.” But while these phenomena are related to one another, they are not elements or aspects of a single thing that is empathy. This diversity of phenomena is one of the reasons for the historical debate about the nature of empathy and if it distinguishes humans from other species. [5]

Empathy vs sympathy

It is common for people to use the terms empathy and sympathy interchangeably. They are different processes; feeling sympathy for someone is identifying with the situation that another person is in. However, feeling sympathy does not inevitably lead to a sense of connection with the other person or what she is feeling. Empathy involves the correct identification of what someone is feeling and also sharing those feelings. In short, sympathy is feeling for someone while empathy is feeling with them. [3] [4] [8]

Empathy vs pity

Pity is a more distant and superficial feeling when compared to empathy, sympathy, or compassion. It is a feeling of discomfort towards someone, a group of people, or a thing in distress. It implies that the sufferer does not deserve his suffering, and his unable to alleviate it. [3]

Empathy vs compassion

Compared to empathy, compassion is more engaged, being associated with an inclination to diminish the suffering of others. It is one of the main incentives of altruism. [3]

Empathy vs altruism

Altruism refers to the unselfish concern for the welfare of others and not only sharing emotions with another person. [3]

In virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) has a myriad of other possible applications beyond gaming. It is possible to use it as a sort of virtual reality empathy machine. There have been some experiments that use VR to generate empathy in someone by exposing them to specific situations like seeing through the eyes of a child, a woman, a stranger, a close friend, or a disabled man. [9]

When compared to other forms of media, VR is more immersive and could, therefore, lead to experiences that generate a greater sense of empathy by placing the user in someone else’s place, changing people’s perception of each other. It would not only be an emotional and cognitive process of feeling the other person’s feelings but actually experiencing them in some way inside virtual reality. [9] [10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Shamay-Tsoory, S.G. (2011). The neural bases for empathy. The Neuroscientist, 17(1): 18-24
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Psychology Today. Empathy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/empathy
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Burton, N. (2014). Empathy and altruism: are they selfish? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201410/empathy-and-altruism-are-they-selfish
  4. 4.0 4.1 Burton, N. (2015). Empathy vs sympathy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201505/empathy-vs-sympathy
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Decety, J. (2011). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emotion Review, 3(1): 92-108
  6. 6.0 6.1 Elliott, R., Bohart, A.C., Watson, J.C., and Greenberg, L.S. (2011). Empathy. In J. Norcross (ed.), Psychotherapy relationships that work (2nd ed.) (pp. 132-152). New York, Oxford University Press
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 de Waal,F.B.M. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annual Reviews of Psychology, 59: 279–300
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 Streep, P. (2017). 6 things you need to know about empathy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201701/6-things-you-need-know-about-empathy
  9. 9.0 9.1 Alsever, J. Is virtual reality the ultimate empathy machine? Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/11/is-virtual-reality-the-ultimate-empathy-machine/
  10. Sutherland, E.A. (2015). Staged Empathy: empathy and visual perception in virtual reality systems. MSc thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology