Empathy is the experience of awareness of the thoughts, emotions or concerns of others. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to put oneself into another's "shoes". Humans experience empathy or feel empathic many times when they see another person or animal during a positive or negative experience. One must be careful not to confuse empathy with sympathy which is characterized as the experience of similar emotions to another person.
Most psychologists and researchers believe empathy is an acquired trait which you begin to learn at a young age until late adolescence. Other theories state that empathy is innate in higher mammals as shown in tests performed on infant children. These theories often maintain that empathy is a part of sentience or the basic capacity for consciousness while critics say that sapience, or the ability to think about sensations, feelings and ideas is required in order to be empathic. Thus the question remains if empathy is either a cognitive or subconscious function.
It is widely accepted however that not all humans have an ability to feel empathy or perceive the emotions of others. Today we consider people with the inability to feel any form of empathy to be suffering from antisocial personality disorder. The terms psychopathic, psychopath or sociopathic personality disorder are no longer used due to negative connotations. Autism and Asperger's syndrome are often falsely characterized as empathy disorders, due to developmental differences in the ways emotions are experienced and expressed in those patients.
There is evidence that connects the prefrontal cortex with human empathy. What's more, adolescent underdeveloped prefrontal corteces may explain an adolescent's short-sightedness and insensitivity to risk.
Closely related concepts are compassion and sympathy. A con-artist may possess and rely on empathy — awareness of others' thoughts and feelings — but fail to experience sympathy, which might prevent him from victimizing others.
The empathy reflex is exploited to a certain extent in all kinds of fiction, thus we may identify deeply with characters appearing in a text or on a screen. It is also possible to identify with a person of the other sex or an animal. Empathy is thought to be a driving psychological force behind the animal rights movement.
Some students of animal behaviour claim that empathy is not restricted to humans as the definition implies. Examples include dolphins saving humans from drowning or from shark attacks, and a multitude of behaviours observed in primates, both in captivity and in the wild. See, for instance, the popular book The Ape and the Sushi Master by Frans de Waal.
Empathy may be painful: seeing the pain of others, especially as broadcasted by mass media, can cause temporary or permanent clinical depression — a phenomenon which is sometimes called weltschmerz.
In some works of science fiction and fantasy, empathy is understood to be a paranormal or psychic ability to sense the emotions of others, as opposed to telepathy, which allows one to perceive thoughts as well. A person who has that ability is called an empath.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 05:58:03
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46