How Empathy Works

Petra Button (C) hugs her friend, Lewis Grant Martin, after seeing him for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 1, 2005 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Ross Taylor/Getty Images

When 20 little schoolkids and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, many Americans across the nation were shocked. Then they dove into action, donating everything from stuffed animals — ultimately three for every resident — to boxes of paper cranes to more than $11 million [sources: CNN, Kix, Curry]. The force at work? Empathy.

Empathy is the ability to feel and share someone else's emotions. It's seeing another person's aspirations, conflicts and vulnerabilities from their vantage point, while still knowing and feeling your own. It differs from sympathy, which is understanding and caring about someone else's grief or misfortune, but not necessarily feeling it. An example: Your friend has a miscarriage. You feel sorry for her, but don't really grasp her pain because you're viewing her miscarriage through your own vantage point. And if you tell your friend, "Well, at least you know you can get pregnant," you're almost certainly not feeling empathy, University of Houston professor Brené Brown, who studies vulnerability, says in a YouTube video. Instead, you're trying to solve her problem, when what she needs is connection [sources: Stewart, LaBier].

Today, empathy — a word derived from the German word Einfühlung, which means "feeling into" — is a hot topic among researchers studying emotions relating to morality. That's because people lacking empathy, or with little of it, often are callous, combative and sometimes evil. One important study on the topic, published in the September 2012 issue of the journal Brain, identified the anterior insular cortex as the region of the brain where human empathy resides. In addition, the study showed evidence that damage to the anterior insular cortex produced empathy deficits similar to those found in people with autism spectrum disorder, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, conditions characterized, in part, by a lack of empathy [sources: Science Daily, Bloom].

If scientists can figure out how empathy works, they may be able to figure out how to help train people with empathy disorders to compensate for any damage or deficits in this region of their brain.