Science of empathy continues to evolve

Saying goodbye
Mary Jo Copeland talks with Willard Garrett as he and his family leave Mary's Place, Sharing and Caring Hands' apartment complex, in downtown Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Empathy seems like a simple concept and an uncontroversial virtue. People use meditation to try to develop more of it. But empathy has stirred up disagreement about its origins and its nature, and even whether the ability to share the feelings of others is a good thing.

Author and essayist Phillip Lopate far prefers the idea of sympathy to empathy.

"To me, sympathy suggests a humane concern for others' positions or plights, based partly on a general ethic of compassion for all living things," he writes in his essay "The Limits of Empathy." "Empathy conveys, to my mind, a stickier, more ghoulish shadowing that stems from the delusion that one can actually take on oneself, or fuse with, another's feelings."

Lopate argues in his essay that empathy is hardwired in our brains. Jean Decety, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, suggests the same.

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"There is strong evidence that empathy has deep evolutionary, biochemical, and neurological underpinnings. Even the most advanced forms of empathy in humans are built on more basic forms and remain connected to core mechanisms associated with affective communication, social attachment, and parental care," Decety writes in the paper "The neuroevolution of empathy."

Scientists Emiliana Simon-Thomas and Daryl Cameron join The Daily Circuit to discuss the latest science on empathy.


Do Rats Feel Empathy? "Much research is showing that human and nonhuman animals are inherently compassionate and empathic and that it's really easy to expand our compassion footprint. Thus, the comments of Peggy Mason ring true: 'When we act without empathy we are acting against our biological inheritance... If humans would listen and act on their biological inheritance more often, we'd be better off.'" (Greater Good)

The empathy deficit. looks at a study showing that young people are becoming less empathetic.

Study: Meditation Can Make Us More Empathetic. "It's not just people with mental disorders or disabilities who can benefit from meditation -- enhanced compassion and connectivity can contribute to individual and societal well-being." (The Atlantic)

Empathy Represses Analytic Thought, and Vice Versa. "When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis, a pivotal study led by a Case Western Reserve University researcher shows." (Science Daily)

Daryl Cameron on a panel on the science of compassion: