We’ve all heard of empathy and empaths. We also know that a lack of empathy is associated with sociopaths and psychopathic behaviour. But is there scientific evidence that proves empathy exists? Are empaths real or just an unproven theory? Can science prove something as intangible as empathy?
In all scientific research, theories are either proven or discarded through experimentation. Results are quantified and examined within a set of parameters. But how can you prove that empaths are real?
First of all, what is empathy?
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the tendency to feel and understand another person’s emotions. Empaths are sensitive and can put themselves in the other person’s shoes. They are attuned to a person’s mood and atmospheric changes.
Feelings and emotions are key to finding out if empaths are real, but how can you study them in a scientific setting? The problem is that psychology is not an exact science. However, several scientific theories suggest empaths are real.
Are Empaths Real?
7 Scientific Studies That Suggest Empaths Are Real:
- Mirror neurons
- Sensory processing disorder
- Emotional contagion
- Increased Dopamine Sensitivity
- Shared Pain
- Mirror Touch Synesthesia
1. Mirror Neurons
My first case that examines whether there is an actual basis behind empaths occurred in the 1980s. Italian researchers stumbled across a strange reaction in the brains of macaque monkeys. They discovered that the same neurons fired when one monkey reached for a peanut and another watched the reaching action.
In other words, performing the action and watching it activated the same neurons in monkeys. The researchers called these ‘mirror neurons‘. The researchers realised that these neurons only fired when performing specific actions.
They surmised that these mirror neurons might be present in all mammals, including humans, but how do you test for that? Studies on the monkeys involved attaching electrodes directly into their brains.
As a result, the experimenters were able to record activity from a single neuron. But you can’t record human responses in this manner. Instead, the experimenters used neuroimaging to record activity.
“With imaging, you know that within a little box about three millimeters by three millimeters by three millimeters, you have activation from both doing and seeing. But this little box contains millions of neurons, so you cannot know for sure that they are the same neurons–perhaps they’re just neighbors.” Psychologist Christian Keysers, PhD, University of Groningen, the Netherlands
Scientists do not have the technology to pinpoint single neurons in humans that exist in monkeys. However, they can observe the same mirroring activity within a small area in the human brain. Moreover, empaths have more mirror neurons, whereas sociopaths and psychopaths tend to have fewer.
2. Sensory Processing Disorder
Some people suffer from sensory overload. You only have to think of those on the autism or Asperger’s Spectrum to know what I mean. Sufferers of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) have trouble coping with information from the senses. They feel bombarded by sensory signals. Their brains cannot process everything received from the senses.
As a result, things like noise, colour, light, touch, even certain textures of food become overwhelming. So it stands to reason that hypersensitive sufferers may also be sensitive to other people’s emotions. So, what’s the scientific evidence?
SPD is not just an aversion to stimuli in the environment, it is caused by abnormalities in the brain. White matter forms the wiring that helps connect different parts of the brain. It is essential for relaying sensory information.
In one study, researchers from the University of San Francisco found abnormalities in the white brain matter of children diagnosed with SPD.
“Until now, SPD hasn’t had a known biological underpinning. Our findings point the way to establishing a biological basis for the disease that can be easily measured and used as a diagnostic tool.” Lead author – Pratik Mukherjee, MD, PhD, UCSF Professor
3. Emotional contagion
Is emotion contagious? Numerous studies suggest that they are. Just think about it. A friend comes to visit you, and she’s in a foul mood. Suddenly, your mood changes to match hers.
Or imagine someone is telling a joke, but they are laughing so much they cannot get the words out. Now you find yourself laughing, but you have no idea whether the joke is funny.
Emotional contagion links to emotional arousal, and we can measure this arousal, so we might be able to find out if empaths are real after all. When we experience emotions, we have a physiological response. Just think of polygraph tests carried out on suspects. Factors such as heart rate, breathing, and changes in skin responses are indicators of emotional arousal.
Studies show that emotional contagion is just as prevalent on social media as it is in real life. In 2012, Facebook researched emotional contagion. For one week, it exposed people to negative or positive posts on their news feed.
The results showed that people were influenced by the negative or positive emotional content viewed. For instance, those that viewed more negative posts used more negative words in subsequent posts of their own. Likewise, those who viewed positive posts posted more positive updates themselves.
There’s also much historical evidence that backs up this theory. In 1991, children returned to their parents after Orkney Children’s Services admitted there was no evidence of satanic abuse by the parents. The accusations stemmed from improper interviewing techniques from social workers on the testimony of other children.
Just as some people are hypersensitive to external stimuli, so are others affected by electromagnetic fields. You might be aware that our brain generates an electromagnetic field, but did you know that our heart generates the biggest electromagnetic field in the body?
In fact, the field generated by the heart is 60 times greater than the brain and can be detected from several feet away.
Not only that, but research at the HeartMath Institute showed that the field in one person could be detected and measured when seated within a few feet of another person.
“When people touch or are in proximity, a transference of the electromagnetic energy produced by the heart occurs.” Rollin McCraty, PhD, et al.
Moreover, research suggests that feelings and desires are communicable through these electromagnetic fields. If empaths are real, they would have a direct connection to a person via electromagnetism.
5. Dopamine Sensitivity
Empaths are naturally sensitive to emotions, moods, and feelings around them. But one study shows that sensitivity to dopamine might prove that empaths are real.
“Human studies demonstrated that lower dopamine levels are associated with higher donation of money to a poor child in a developing country.” Reuter, M, et al.
If you are sensitive to the world, you experience everything to a higher intensity. It is like turning the sound and picture up to the max. As a result, you need less dopamine (the pleasure hormone) to make you feel happy.
Studies also show that lower dopamine levels link to an improved ability to predict other people’s behaviour.
So, are empaths real because they experience the world more intensely? Do they pick up on small changes in the atmosphere or people’s mood?
6. I Feel Your Pain
Is it possible to physically feel another person’s pain? Whether it is distress at watching animals suffering or abuse of children, we feel connected somehow physically and mentally.
Studies suggest that there are specific parts of the brain responsible for this sense of connection. So, if shared pain is a real phenomenon, perhaps empaths are real?
“When we witness what happens to others, we don’t just activate the visual cortex like we thought some decades ago. We also activate our own actions as if we’d be acting in similar ways. We activate our own emotions and sensations as if we felt the same.” Psychologist Christian Keysers, PhD, University of Groningen, the Netherlands
Rat studies showed that shocking one rat led to other rats freezing in shock, even though they did not receive shocks. However, when researchers inhibited a part of the brain deep within the cerebellum, their shock response to the other rat’s distress lessened.
Interestingly, research shows the fear of being shocked did not reduce. This suggests that this region of the brain is responsible for fear experienced by others.
7. Mirror Touch Synesthesia
Synesthesia is a neurological condition that overlaps two senses. For instance, someone might see colours when they hear music or associate scents with numbers.
Mirror-touch synesthesia is a little different. People with mirror-touch synesthesia can feel what others are feeling. Described as a ‘tactile sensation on their own body‘, those with this condition feel like other people’s emotions emanate from inside. They experience them as if they emerge from themselves, not externally.
As with mirror neurons, empaths who experience mirror-touch synesthesia activate similar neural pathways as if they were performing the actions themselves.
So, are empaths real? Scientific evidence doesn’t conclusively prove the existence of empaths. However, it does suggest a level of connectivity between humans that we didn’t realise before.
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