Mental health · Science

Empath meets neuroscience

In this article series I discuss my understanding of what distinguishes empath experiences from experiences that they can easily be confused with. This is in part an attempt to answer some of the questions that I’ve been asking myself over months or years since discovering this concept and being gradually but consistently convinced that it’s real and that it applies to me.

1. What is an empath and what is that supposed to mean?

The dictionary definition of an empath is “(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to perceive the mental or emotional state of another individual”. I would add in my personal case that this can also include their bodily state — for me this is often the strongest form of empath perception (so that at a point I realised that with some training in reading these sensations I can classify myself as a medical intuitive). It can also include their existential, or in a sense “visceral” state — a state or flavour of being that is broader than specific emotions or sensations, something like a felt, whole-body answer to an earnestly and literally asked question of “How are you?”.

I was always much more into science than science fiction, so I didn’t encounter this concept until two years ago, when I ran an internet search on resources for HSPs (Highly Sensitive Persons) and bounced into linked resources for empaths (to give credit, this was on Intrigued, but also somewhat bewildered, I tried to figure out what on earth the author means by “feeling other people’s feelings” — my main point of contention was: but doesn’t everyone do that?

I thought that what this author describes as a paranormal skill sounds so totally quotidian to me that I must be misunderstanding her, as I can’t see how anyone could function otherwise. Either that, or I’ve been psychic (what?) and didn’t even realise most other people aren’t. I ended up writing the author and taking one of her courses, to hear with full confidence that I definitely have a skill that is not standard, and in the author’s understanding is paranormal. I couldn’t swallow this; it took me at least half a year to approach this idea inching forward at a snail’s pace through asking other people about their experiences around the emotions of others and hearing, in fact, that they don’t know what I’m talking about when I say that of course, if someone who (for example) harbours intense suppressed anger sits opposite me in a train compartment, I of course viscerally experience this anger, too.

2. Is an empath just someone who takes mirroring others’ expressions to an extreme? — two universal brain games

After I convinced myself, by interrogating a number of unsuspecting individuals, that this experience is somewhat unusual, my neuroscientifically trained brain jumped in with a proposition about mirror neurons and the like — who says this is psi? — it may simply be that for some reason I mirror more intensely and on other routes than others, and this results in my visceral experience.

To clarify for the lay person: it is known in neuroscience and psychology that people (and many animals) have an automatic, built-in mechanism for mirroring the facial expressions and body language of others. It’s known that even newborns can do this, literally hours after birth; and interacting babies works on this basis: you smile, the baby (hopefully) smiles back; you pull a face, the baby imitates you; then you imitate the baby; etc. But as you imitate the baby, and the baby imitates you, this is not merely a mechanical game of masks — as you smile back, you start feeling different; so does the baby.

The thing is that when you smile back at the baby, another well-known brain phenomenon kicks in — it has been confirmed by scientists that merely copying the facial expression of an emotion (and I would suggest this goes even more strongly for whole-body postures) induces in us at least a little bit of an experience of this emotion. You can easily test this by slouching, collapsing your chest, and making a sad face; feel how you feel; then expand your chest, take a deep breath in, open your eyes wide, and smile — whatever your baseline mood, are you capable of feeling the exact same way in both bodily positions? This is why research and experience suggests that just by (unconsciously, instinctively in large part) copying another’s expression, you get a bit closer to feeling how they feel.

As an interesting side note, there is also research that suggests that you can make it more difficult for people to feel emotions by (temporarily) paralysing their facial muscles (with an injection); it is also harder for these experimental subjects to imagine / reason about other people’s emotions. So research suggests that the experience of emotions is very closely tied up with our experience of the body on a level of subtle micro-movements (too small perhaps to see, but big enough to sense); in addition to the big postural and gestural movements that we can easily identify as expressing emotion. The research suggests that (tiny, unconscious) movement may be at least part of what makes up our experience of emotion.

Coming back from this ramble, after convincing myself that my visceral experience of other’s emotions is unique, I still wasn’t convinced that this is necessarily paranormal — maybe my version of the two above mentioned universal human (and animal) processes is just somewhat more intense. When mirroring the subtle body language of another person and then sensing your own body, thereby indirectly — but still viscerally — sensing a rough copy of what they (probably) feel — maybe empaths just somehow pick up more of the body language, have a stronger or more precise copying / mirroring instinct, and / or it feels more intense for them to experience these new expressions that they copied from the other person?

3. Why the scientist thinks it’s magic after all

At this point, after a year of playing around with the issue, I don’t believe this anymore — to make it short, because this spill-over of emotions seems to work even if I just see a person’s back, or — for a serious heresy — at a distance.

While, frankly, I have no clue as to why and how this works, and don’t necessarily want to use foggy (at least they were to me until recently, and in part still are) esoteric or new-age terms to pretend that I know what’s going on, at least I would like to illustrate in some detail how those experiences that I have over time learnt to filter out as “genuine”, psi-like “empath experiences” differ from what I describe above (and a few other things they may be confused with). Why I think this is a different animal.

This is for those patient and inquisitive souls among you who are perhaps where I was a year ago, asking yourselves “Am I an empath?”, but not happy to randomly just self-label for it being cool or for simply being emotionally perceptive. It’s also for anyone who has bumped into this empath concept, but is not a native of the esoteric world, and would like a more pedantic (but still personal) view on what this is and whether it’s a real thing; and what it’s like.

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