21 January 2008

On Empathy

"Empathy" is not just a synonym for "sympathy." A true empath is one who experiences the emotions of others as if they were their own. A true empath senses an emotionscape all around them, often "seeing" individual emotions as rays or waves.

Physical distance does not matter. The strength of an emotional signal depends on three main things: how strong it is at the source, whether the source is thinking about the empath, and how well source and empath know each other.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between an emotion from within and an emotion from someone else, especially without context - they fundamentally feel the same. Also, the empath's mind will try to supply some kind of reason for any unattached emotions, which can be further misleading. But each individual person has a signature feel to them, borne of their souls, and each of these is unique. It is possible to discern these signatures, given enough practice.

In real life, emotion waves are just one of many aspects of a given social interaction - along with body language, tone of voice, and words. Online lacks much of the nonverbal context of offline, which actually makes the emotional signals easier to see.

Empathy is not the same as telepathy - the ability to read thoughts. Knowing what someone feels is separate from knowing why they feel it. However, given enough context surrounding an emotion, an empath can often deduce the thoughts with amazing accuracy.


Eric said...

In Philip K. Dick's fiction, empathy is the defining quality of being human--the difference between a person and a thinking machine is the person's ability to emotionally put him or herself into another creature's place.

I'm not sure Dick was actually right--I can't say for certain that other high-functioning animals don't feel empathy (aside from our primate cousins, there are tantalizing hints that elephants and dolphins may have some sense of other that could be described as empathic). But it's an interesting idea, and certainly the capacity for empathy is something that seems like it would have to be associated with higher-functioning creatures, since it requires both a sense of self and a sense of not-self.

Philosophical materialist that I tend to be, I'm not sure I can buy into the idea of actual emotional waves or rays--I can accept the concept as metaphor, but I personally can't take it any farther than that.

If there is something to PKD's notions, then a true empath is "merely" human--that word is in quotes because I don't think there is anything minor or diminished in being human. Dick's real fear--and an understandable one--was that a lot of folks might not really be human notwithstanding their two legs, two arms, two eyes, steady jobs, marriages, public service, church attendance, etc.

PKD was intensely spiritual; I'm not, but I admire that quality in PKD's work. More importantly, whether the capacity for empathy is an divine grace or a byproduct of complicated brainmeat, one can see hope and beauty in PKD's hypothesis even if one doesn't follow the same path to it.

I hope I didn't meander too much in the above. If I did, it probably means it's after my bedtime....

MWT said...

Hmmm. I think you just told me that I should go check out PKD's fiction. :)

The concept of "put self into another's place" is what I would call "sympathy." Empathy is more the other way around. Someone else's view comes to you. Also, most empaths can project emotions to others, and the strongest ones tend to naturally radiate whatever they're feeling, which non-empaths pick up on. It's the basis for charisma. So "put self into another's place" takes on a whole different meaning in those circumstances. ;)

I think everyone has some capacity to develop empathy. It all depends on personal interest, personality, and whether one can get past the denial stage of stuff existing beyond the physical.

Anne C. said...

Not an easy talent to come to grips with, from what I've seen. It doesn't always come across as charisma. Reserve can be the automatic defense, in which case the empath appears to be unusually insightful and wise.

Random Michelle K said...

My friend erin and I actually had a long discussion about this several years ago. We were trying to decide when one felt empathetic and when one felt sympathetic.

I think (it was a few years ago) our determination was that if you had already experienced a situation, you could have empathy. If you hadn't experienced a situation yourself, you'd experience sympathy.

i.e. I had sympathy for her when she was taking her law exams, but had empathy when she had to deal with a specific problem customer.

Of course, this was only our definition, but it worked well.

Eric said...

A lot depends on how you define the words, and "empathy" and "sympathy" are words that get kind of mangled together in common usage anyway. A dictionary definition (I'm not trying to pedantic in citing dictionary.com, only trying to get a handle on things) defines "empathy" as a "vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another" and "sympathy" as "harmony of or agreement in feeling." That's the angle I (and I think PKD) would come from: empathy is more visceral, more personal. Sympathy is feeling sorry (or happy) for something, empathy is having some understanding (via imagination or experience) of what it must be like to actually be that something.

Let me try putting it like this: sympathy is when I'm happy because you're happy. Empathy is when I'm happy because if I were you, I would be happy, too. See the distinction? Empathy is similar to sympathy, but it involves an act of imagination and a certain degree of selflessness (or sense of other). It requires me to imagine I was you, even for an instant.

And that's also why it may be a very human--or high order mammal--function. A dog might be capable of noticing when his human is upset and becoming upset in response (a sympathetic feeling), but the dog probably isn't capable of imagining what it's like to be an upset person. A human, on the other hand, might feel sympathy for a dog and empathy: e.g. you see a hurt or abandoned animal, and start thinking about what it would be like to be scared, cold, hungry and alone, and what you would want someone to do if you were a dog.

PKD dealt with empathy as a theme in many, if not most, of his work, but his most focused look happens to also be one of his most accessible novels: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. That's a reasonably good place to start: Ubik and The Man In The High Castle are also good starting points. (My personal favorite PKD novel, VALIS, is freakin' brilliant, but it's also kind of atypical and--if you're looking for SF--it's not exactly science fiction despite some SF-ey elements.)

Yes, you should read PKD. Everyone should read PKD. :-)

Eric said...

"...empathy as a theme in many, if not most, of his work...."

Er... maybe that should have been: "empathy as a theme in many, if not most, of his books...."

(Stupid lack of edit function, mumblemumblemumble....)

Anonymous said...

"A true empath senses an emotionscape all around them, often "seeing" individual emotions as rays or waves."

Or shockwaves sometimes. When someone is hurt, one can get these blasts. Like electricity through their body and feel all the pain.

MWT said...

Anne and Rebelcat know what I'm referring to.

Michelle and Eric: What term would you use to refer to the phenomenon that I described in my post?

Eric said...

What would I call what you describe? That's a toughie, actually. It sounds like you're describing something paranormal-ish: if so, I suppose you could call the phenomena anything you wanted to. (I'd also have to admit that, materialist and skeptic that I am, I can't really go there with you. Sorry.)

If you are describing something along those lines, there's plenty of precedence in science fiction... or at least in Star Trek... for using the term "empathy," starting with the Original Series episode "The Empath" and on through Counsellor Troi on TNG.

That's part of what I really meant with my earlier comment about "how you define the words." There's the way a dictionary defines the word based on common use and it's linguistic roots--but there's also a history of the word being used in looser and more specialized ways in philosophy, fantasy, and science fiction.

It's possible that everyone posting here is actually writing about "empathy" in a different sense of meaning, which is why I went to the dictionary with my second post--like I said, I really wasn't trying to be pedantic, only to clarify what I was writing about.

So "empathy" is just fine as a word-choice. What's really important is that everyone in the world ought to be a Philip K. Dick fan. :-)

Random Michelle K said...

I do in fact know what you were describing, but, to me, empathy isn't the word for that.

I'm not sure there is a word that I know that fits that precisely, to be honest.

Random Michelle K said...

I've been thinking about this, and I t think empathic rather than empathy is the correct way to put it.

The word empathy feels passive, while empathic seems to be a more active word.

Not sure if that helps or not.

MWT said...

Hmm... "empathic" would be an adjective rather than a noun. Though people have probably used "empathic" as a noun meaning "person who does that emotion-attuning thing described in my original post".

I'm inclined to stick with my original terms and meanings. My question was more to get the discussion away from semantics and back to the actual ability.

Random Michelle K said...



Unknown said...

If you think of the whole process as resonance (which at that submolecular level it is), then sympathy would be somebody else's emotion setting up a resonance in yourself through your having had a similar emotional experience, while empathy would be you emotionally resonating with the other's experience without getting personally engaged in it to the point where you can't tell if it is your emotion or theirs (because there is no emotional "hook" in yourself to engage).
Works the same with thoughts.
Visual experiences of waves or color is because the brain uses the five senses to interact with the world of form and therefore, when interacting at that level and consciously aware of it, has to assign a "five senses" tool to describe the experience.
The above description seems to fit all musings given of sympathy and empathy, but maybe I missed something. (Hah! Maybe?)

Unknown said...

Well, maybe I did. I apologize. I should mention that there is some very cool science on this going on, such as Edgar Mitchell's "Natures Mind: The Quantum Hologram," from the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Its about *non-locality* and mind-matter interactions.
Anne C is going to have to show me how to make links. :-(
Umm, non-locally of course.

MWT said...

Links aren't too hard. You can either just copy/paste it directly from the address bar, or run it through http://tinyurl.com first if it's really long, or make a proper link thusly:

<a href="address">description text</a>

which makes:

description text

Back to your real reply. :) I think that I would more agree with your sympathy/empathy resonance definition if you have it the other way around.

Also, when I said "waves" before - this isn't something that I see through my eyes. This is emotion waves, sensed through ... uh, my emotion detectors. ;) I know of people who say they see colors but I'm not one of them.

Someday I plan to get around to writing a full-fledged ramble about my thoughts on the current state of parapsychology, which would probably also work as a response to the concept of resonance quantum particles. (Maybe after the big work deadline I'm hurtling toward at the moment.)

Unknown said...

Can't wait.
Although to call it parapsychology is giving it a (negative or positive) button-pushing quality that clouds understanding. Everybody does it, whether they are conscious of it or not. Hence believers and skeptics.