Are empaths born or made? (the truth about empathy)

In this blog post, we will answer the following question: Are empaths born or made? We will give you the truth about empathy, and discuss two studies that prove the nature of empathy.

Are empaths born or made?

The good news is that empaths are made. We are not empathic by nature. The latest scientific studies regarding the ability to empathize with others indicate that it is not an instinctive process, but rather one of learning and mentalization. 

What did you feel when a homophobic man walked into a homosexual nightclub in Orlando and murdered 49 people? When a young man with mental disorders entered the lion cage at the Metropolitan Zoo and many people claimed that he should have died instead of the wild animals? Or when you find out that a girl was abused by her stepfather for the first time at the age of five and, from then on, all broke out in her life that only let her talk about what happened at 40 years of age?

Perhaps many will answer that pain, empathy, sadness, or turmoil. There are people who easily empathize with the suffering of others, but there are some who are only concerned about the premiere of the latest chapter of Game of Thrones. How do you feel about it? As for my own pain or for someone else’s drama? The reasons why some people bond more and others less to the pain of others have not always been clear.

Today we wanted to know what neuroscience says about the ability that we have as human beings to feel the suffering of others: family, friends, close, marginalized, and unknown groups. Let’s see what are the keys to understanding these processes.

The truth about empathy: It is not instinctive!

In June 2016, a study appeared that astonished many scientists and psychologists with the implications it could have for understanding people’s social behavior. Tor Wager, the lead author of the study, stated: “Research suggests that empathy is a deliberative process that requires taking another person’s perspective, rather than being an instinctive, automatic process.

According to the study by the University of Colorado, published in the eLife journal, the ability to empathize with the suffering of another human being requires neuronal cognitive processes, which differ from the sensory processes that we use to perceive our own pain. In simple: we perceive our own pain instantly through our senses, while we must learn to put them in the place of the other when they suffer.

The revolutionary thing about the study is that before neuroscience thought that both (feelings of own pain and empathy) were very similar and used, more or less, the same systems to generate sensations. But the evidence gathered by the University of Colorado team is credible.

How did they find out? 

They subjected a group of people to a level of moderate pain, heat, shock, or pressure while measuring their brain activity. Later, those same people had to observe images in which pain was caused to others, asking them to imagine that these injuries were being inflicted on their own bodies. 

The results were shocking: the brain patterns in both cases were different. When the volunteers observed the pain of others, they had to carry out a mentalization process to put themselves in their place, it was not a spontaneous reaction.

The consequences of this study are quite profound. First, research is telling us that empathy is something that is learned and therefore depends on the education that a child is given. 

Second, the study reveals that those who suffer from disorders, such as sociopathy (people who do not know the importance of social norms, the product of negligent education) could suffer from neural short circuits that simply prevent them from putting themselves in the place of the other, which would make his condition more serious.

The truth about empathy: everything changes if it is someone we love

However, according to another study published in 2011, the level of empathy we feel for another depends directly on how close the person we are seeing is suffering. If it is part of the family, friends, close environment, or if it is possible to identify to some extent with that person, if it is a stranger or someone who generates rejection; each of these levels of closeness would indicate different reactions.

This study, led by James A. Coan of the University of Virginia, suggests that those we love become, on a neuronal level, part of ourselves. Their pain and suffering, in this case, we can perceive as if they had caused them in our own bodies. 

And this is not just a metaphor and beautiful words, it is a scientific study carried out from the use of magnetic resonance imaging: a group of volunteers was caused an electric shock, while some strangers and friends were under threat of suffering the same shock. Measurements of brain activity for self-pain and friend-inflicted pain were strikingly identical.

Based on this theory, we can explain, for example, the pain of a mother when seeing a sick child suffer, or how many people who have recently lost their partners due to illness, fall into the deepest depressions, and even, they can get sick too.

According to Coan, our identity is woven with those of those we love, with whom we share emotional ties. And this is configured as a necessity in our lives: we need to have friends and allies to build our identity and, as this happens, we become more and more similar to them, also sharing their joys and sufferings.

Developing empathy

Empathy allows your child to bond with other people based on their emotions. Through empathy, your child becomes aware of the negative or positive effect their actions can have. He understands, for example, that some words and actions can hurt, but others can comfort and console. This is how empathy develops.

Before 1 year

In babies under 1-year-old, empathy is not yet present. However, your baby imitates you if he sees you smile, frown, or stick your tongue out. He is interested in faces, and between 6 months and 12 months he can tell the difference between facial expressions that express joy or sadness, for example.

Little by little, your child comes to understand what other people are feeling by putting himself in their shoes.

Between 12 months and 18 months

Your toddler is curious and is increasingly interested in other children. He continues to imitate the adults around him and may perform certain comforting acts, such as going for a hug or giving a kiss when he sees another child cry.

Between 18 months and 3 years

Empathy varies among children. Some toddlers seem to have a more natural sensitivity to what others are going through. For example, around 2 years old, they can spontaneously help another child without being asked. Around this age, your toddler is able to show another crying child by saying, in their words, that they are sorry. However, he cannot yet put himself in the other’s shoes and understand how or why he is feeling.

Between 3 years and 5 years

Relationships with others are increasingly important to your child. This helps him to become empathetic and he becomes able to comfort friends on his own, without you asking him to. He understands better when another child is upset and what would do him good. However, some children still have difficulty understanding that their actions and words can hurt others.

Actions to promote empathy in your child

Some of the things you do can help your child develop empathy. Here are a few examples.

  • When you are warm and sensitive to your child’s feelings, you help them become aware of their own emotions.
  • When you witness a situation where another child is sad, ask your toddler how he would feel if the same happened to him. This helps him understand the other’s point of view.
  • When you make empathetic gestures yourself (eg when you console a child who is in pain), your child understands the behaviors that can be had in such a situation.
  • When your child has a fight with a friend, explain to him the consequences that his actions or his attitude can have on the other child (eg: he is sad, he is angry).

What if my child lacks empathy?

If your child doesn’t seem to empathize with others, regularly invite them to do you a favor, comfort a friend, or help a smaller child, for example. By pointing out how much his gesture is appreciated, he will feel valued. Later, he will better understand how others can feel about his behavior and attitude.

To remember:  Before 3 years old, a child only sees things from his point of view and is not yet able to put himself in the other’s shoes.

Empathy gradually develops with age, observing and imitating the actions of adults. By encouraging your child to be considerate of others, you help him develop his empathy.

The bottom line

These two studies are showing us two fundamental aspects to be clear when it comes to understanding the capacity for empathy of human beings.

First of all, empathy is something you learn. We are not born with the ability to feel the pain of the other, we are only capable of putting ourselves in their shoes to the extent that we live, have experienced, and bond with them.

Second, the closer we are to each other, the greater our ability to put ourselves in their shoes. And precisely that is what our society needs: to understand the other, to empathize with their needs and their pains. 

So, the more we get to know the various social groups and the more we dedicate ourselves to living for others and not just for ourselves, the more neural connections we will generate, which in the future will allow us to empathize with those we consider different.

And therefore, we must teach it to our children. If a child grows up and lives in a bubble, it will cost him more to put himself in the shoes of someone who thinks differently, lives in other neighborhoods, eats different things, or believes in other gods. 

The more experiences they have with those others, the more diversity there is in their environment, that child and future adult will be a more welcoming human being, less prejudiced, and much more capable of being a leader in a world that requires integration.

Do you feel that you are able to empathize with the pain of people other than yourself?

Do not hesitate to let us know about your experience. 

References

Empathy for others’ pain rooted in cognition rather than sensation – Science Daily

The Neuroscience of Empathizing With Another Person’s Pain – Psychology Today

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy – Researchgate

The power of love – APA.org

Divya is currently a Clinical Psychology Trainee in a Master of Philosophy program and holds a Master’s in clinical psychology. She has a special interest in Personality studies and disorders, having researched the subject before, and Neuropsychology; with an additional interest being Mood disorders. She likes to write about Psychiatric issues, having worked in multiple specialty setups during her time as a clinical psychology student, and in her free time she likes to cook and read.