What does neuroscience have to say about empaths?

Note: For a shorter and more readable version featuring synaesthesia, check my short (non-rambling and informal) empath guide.


What distinguishes empath experiences from some common psychological experiences they can easily be confused with?

Here I try to answer some questions I’ve been asking myself for months since discovering the empath concept and gradually coming to terms with the view that it’s kind of real and applies to me.


What is an empath?

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 that in my case this can also include their bodily state – for me this is often the strongest form of empath perception (so I realised that with some training in reading these sensations I could also label myself a medical intuitive).

It can also include their existential or in a way “visceral” state – a state or flavour of being that is broader than specific emotions or sensations, something like a felt, whole-body answer to a literal “how are you feeling?”.

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. 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 bewilderment was: but doesn’t everyone do that?

I thought: if what this author describes as a paranormal skill sounds so daily-banal to me, I must be misunderstanding her? As I can’t see how anyone could function otherwise. Either that, or I’m psychic (what?) and  haven’t noticed most other people aren’t.

I ended up writing the author just to have her convince me that I definitely have an ability that’s considered very unusual.

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 that they don’t know what I’m talking about when I say that if someone who (for example) harbours intense suppressed anger sits facing me in a train compartment, of course I viscerally experience this anger, too.


Is an empath just someone who takes mirroring to an extreme? 

After I convinced myself, by interrogating a number of unsuspecting individuals, that this experience is somewhat unusual, my neuroscience training jumped in with thoughts about mirror neurons. Because who says this is psi? It may simply be that for some reason I mirror more intensely and on other pathways than others, and this results in my visceral experience.


Universal brain game #1

Neuroscience and psychology say that people (and many animals) have an automatic, built-in mechanism for mirroring the facial expressions and body language of others. Even newborns have been found to do this only hours after birth. And mirroring forms the basis for interacting with babies: you smile, the baby (hopefully) smiles back. You stick out your tongue, the baby imitates you. Then you imitate the baby, etc. But as you imitate each other, this is not merely a mechanical game of masks – you both start feeling different and synchronising your emotional vibes.

The thing is that when you smile back at the baby, another well-known brain mechanism kicks in – it has been shown by research that merely copying and emotional facial expression (and perhaps this goes even more for whole-body postures) causes us to feel at least the shadow 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.


Universal brain game #2

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 them 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 slight perhaps to see, but big enough to sense). These are in addition to the big postural and gestural movements that we can easily identify as expressing emotion. It seems that (tiny, unconscious) movements may be at least part of what makes up our experience of emotion.

So, after convincing myself that my visceral experience of other’s emotions is unusual, I still wasn’t convinced that this is necessarily paranormal – maybe my version of the two universal human (and animal) processes described above 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 are (probably) feeling – maybe empaths just somehow pick up more of the body language? Maybe they have a stronger or more precise copying / mirroring instinct? And / or they are so sensitive that it simply feels more intense for them to experience expressions they copied from the other person?


Why it’s probably magic after all

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

Frankly, I have no clue as to why and how this works, and don’t want to use esoteric terminology to pretend I know what’s going on. But at least I would like to illustrate how the experiences I’ve over time learnt to filter out as “genuine”, psi-like “empath experiences” differ from the above.

Why I am getting to think this is a different animal.

Perhaps the best way to do that is through stories, and many of them are here.

What is the difference between high sensitivity and energy sensitivity? HSP vs. empath. Features the ghost at the lake.

The empath senses your itchy sweater

Posts in which I’m trying to pick it apart logically:

How to tell empath experiences from trauma and mood swings?

6 signs that you are (literally) feeling others’ feelings



Please share your thoughts!

Have you ever tried looking at that empath thing from the perspective of science or psychology? Come up with anything?

Note: For an updated version featuring synaesthesia, check my short (non-rambling and informal) empath guide, as well as the article on mirror-touch synaesthesia.


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