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The importance of 'emotional' not just 'rational' empathy

I'm just back from four days away with friends down in Cumbria.  I have been going to these long residential Spring weekends on the edge of the Lake District for well over twenty years and have written a lot about them too ... see for example the sequence of posts from a couple of years' ago beginning "Peer groups, Cumbria spring group: first morning - arriving".

There are so many reasons why I go to these groups ... friendship, a wonderful chance for a break in beautiful countryside, 'retreat', fun, psychological exploration, so much.  And one reason is definitely about 'emotional yoga'.  I use this phrase because it describes so well some of what I gain from these interpersonal groups.  I do 'physical yoga' partly to keep supple & strong.  I know my body is stiffening up as I age. Typically three times a week, I take a bit of time to do a series of stretches.  I started this process back in the late 1960's.  I hope I'll keep doing the stretches right up to the end of my life.  I don't expect to stop and, if I did, I'm confident that I would stiffen up more quickly than I already do.  

There's a parallel with my intra- and inter-personal flexibility.  If I don't 'practise' regularly, if I don't stretch & challenge myself in the sensitivity & depth of my relationship with myself & others, I feel I tend to 'stiffen up'.  And that's what the data shows ... see the recent study "Empathic concern and perspective taking: linear and quadratic effects of age across the adult life span" ... with its finding that both 'perspective taking' and 'empathic concern' seem to improve initially as we age, but then as we get still older these crucial interpersonal qualities begin to deteriorate. There's a parallel too with this year's paper "Wisdom and mental health across the life span" with the suggestion that older people tend to lose wisdom as their openness deteriorates.  In a way, these groups I take part in are practice at deep relationship, at intimacy, at going down again into that 'mindfulness practice' ... "What do I really feel right now?" ... and going down again into that related 'mindfulness practice' ... "What is happening for this other person right now?  How are they feeling?"  The blog post "Meeting at relational depth: a model" provides a map of this territory and last year's paper "Constructs of social and emotional effectiveness: Different labels, same content?" highlights that 'Expressivity' and 'Sensitivity' seem key components of intra- and inter-personal competence.

Over the years, I have written a good deal about empathy on this blog.  Of central interest seems to be the distinction between 'rational' empathy and 'emotional' empathy.  So in the blog post "Do psychotherapists, doctors and leaders develop "emotional chainmail? Two kinds of empathy", I wrote: Emotional and physical pain is all mixed up in a bundle often affecting the same nerve tissue - see, for example "The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain."  And when we empathise with another's pain, we actually feel it; it may well literally hurt us too - see "Meta-analytic evidence for common and distinct neural networks associated with directly experienced pain and empathy for pain."  This is true for physical pain and it is also true for emotional pain.  As authors Singer & Lamm write in their paper "The social neuroscience of empathy" - "Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion."  And they go on to say " ... recent studies also show that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon, and that vicarious responses are malleable with respect to a number of factors — such as contextual appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the perspective adopted during observation of the other."  It seems useful to distinguish cognitive empathy (mentally understanding what the other person is experiencing) and emotional empathy (actually sharing what they're feeling).  This is well described in Walter's paper "Social cognitive neuroscience of empathy: Concepts, circuits, and genes".  We are more likely to feel emotional empathy when we have a sense that the other person is similar to us (see Preis & Kroener-Herwig's 2012 paper), so Meyer et al showed in their research - "Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation" - that observing a friend's (social) suffering "activated affective pain regions associated with the direct (i.e. firsthand) experience of exclusion ... and this activation correlated with self-reported self-other overlap with the friend. Alternatively, observing a stranger's exclusion activated regions associated with thinking about the traits, mental states and intentions of others ['mentalizing']."  At worst, cognitive empathy involving only perspective taking (in contrast to the shared feelings of emotional empathy) can be used to help "read" another's mind and manipulate them for personal gain - see "Why it pays to get inside the head of your opponent: The differential effects of perspective taking and empathy in negotiations".


Empathy - probably particularly emotional empathy - is of very considerable importance for psychotherapists (Elliott et al, 2011), for doctors (Mercer et al, 2012) and for close relationships more generally (Canevello et al, 2011 & Sullivan et al, 2010).  Worryingly there is research suggesting that empathy actually declines over the course of medical training (Neumann et al, 2011) and may be declining as well in the general population (Konrath et al, 2011).  In tomorrow's blog post (the third & last in this sequence on "emotional chainmail") I'll look at ways that can help us "get the best of both worlds" - maintaining emotional stability while also staying empathically & emotionally connected with others.

More to follow ... 

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