The ability to understand what another human being is thinking or feeling is most commonly known as empathy. The word empathy comes from the German einfühlung, which literally translates as “feeling into.” For thousands of years, empathy has attracted the attention of great thinkers in many fields of study, but only recently has empathy experienced a serious comeback, signaled by the advent of social neuroscience. This field, a melding of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, is startlingly young and the researchers in it are duly young, and maybe even hip (as David Brooks has pointed out). Empathy has found center stage in a large body of social neuroscience research. So far there doesn’t seem to be a definite consensus on how we empathize with others, but there are two prominent theories on the table that try to explain the phenomenon of empathy.
The first one, called Simulation Theory, proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we “simulate” or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like. In fact, there is some preliminary evidence of so-called “mirror neurons” in humans that fire during both the observation and experience of actions and emotions. And there are even parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level kinds of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments. On an intuitive level, Simulation Theory makes sense, because it seems glaringly obvious that in order to understand what another person is feeling, I can simply pretend as if I were feeling the same thing. Despite its intuitive appeal, Simulation Theory has to be tested to see what evidence exists for it in the brain.
The other proposed theory that attempts to explain empathy, which some researchers think completely opposes Simulation Theory, is known as Theory of Mind—the ability to understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think and feel. Research exploring Theory of Mind became very popular in clinical work on autism, the basic finding showing that autistic individuals cannot effectively represent or explain the mental states of another. More recently, tasks that tap Theory of Mind processes have been implemented in brain scanning studies. The results from these studies show that there may be specific brain areas that underlie and support a Theory of Mind.
Sadly, some researchers have pledged their allegiance exclusively to one of these theories, creating an academic duel with the naïve assumption that one of these theories is right and the other blatantly wrong. Not to risk sounding too cliché, but I can’t help but ask the question: can’t we just get along?
What’s most likely, maybe, is that empathy is a multi-faceted process, with some aspects of it being more automatic and emotional (immediately getting upset when we see a loved one who’s upset) and other aspects of it that are more reflective and conceptual (understanding why someone might be upset based on what we know about the person, his/her personality, etc.). Whether the more automatic or the more reflective aspect “kicks in” will necessarily depend on the social context in which we find ourselves. This is a daunting, open question, and we’ll have to wait for social neuroscience as a field to grow a bit more and address it.
For now, what we can say from empathy research is that we have begun to understand how the brain gives rise to the wonderful capacity we have to “feel into” another human being. With the newfound tools of social neuroscience in hand, psychologists and neuroscientists are now on the cusp of more discoveries about the vibrant life of the empathic brain.