What the heck is this “energy” that empaths are sensitive to?

Since having been persuaded that I’m “energy-sensitive” (an empath), I’ve been struggling with this question.



As someone with a relatively extensive science background, to me energy is mostly E = mc2   … or kinetic energy, or thermal energy, or electric energy, perhaps.

Certainly, well – it does not make sense to me that energy in this quantifiable, physical sense would get transferred between people, unless perhaps we plug ourselves into the wall socket. And certainly, this concept does not have any correlation with what I actually sense and feel and experience in this “energy-sensitive” area of my life.



In a more everyday sense, having energy can mean being energetic, energised.

This can mean feeling vibrant, active, agile, strong, having enthusiasm and endurance on both the physical and psychological level; or perhaps being emotionally and mentally vibrant, inspired and vivacious, or perhaps focussed, deep and intense.


Emotional contagion

Energy transfer between people certainly makes more sense in this context – there is even an established term for it in psychology: emotional contagion. This is a well-known phenomenon that has been quite well researched, and is recently even finding applications in areas such as management science.

I have already written about emotional contagion (and other relevant bits of research) here.

The basic idea is that emotions and moods can be “contagious” because humans (and many animals) have a built-in, automatic process for mirroring the emotions of another. This can be observed when even newborns to some degree respond to the emotional mood surrounding them (whether it’s one of calm or distress, say) and soon start to copy other humans’ facial expressions. This does not have to be taught.

The interesting bit is that the human bodymind is also built in such a way that when we mirror emotional expressions, even very subtly (it doesn’t have to be a full-on shiny smile; it can just be some subtle lighting up of your face when you see said baby) – we start to feel some of the corresponding emotion in our body, too.

You can easily test this for yourself by acting out various emotional expressions and body postures; it’s hard to not feel at least a faint shadow of the real feeling. The connection between emotions and the body is two-way (some researchers even regard emotions are primarily bodily or somatic; see e.g. Antonio Damasio for a celebrity account).


Emotional energy

In that sense then, my next guess is that new age people are talking about energy in this mindbody felt sense – as different levels of this intensity, vibrancy, liveliness.

There is certainly a sense in which this can be transmitted between people – I think just feeling more vibrant around certain others, taking up some of their liveliness even if perhaps you have been feeling rather down before you met, is a common experience.

In this sense, energy-sensitive people would be those who are off-the chart susceptible to the “vibes” of others – to something that feels like a dynamic force inside the emotions and impulses of humans and other living beings.

I would then think that this is what’s meant by “energy”, on a practical, experiential level, with no metaphysical and philosophical concepts implied: the bodily felt sense of this dynamic flowing impulse or force inside emotions, moods, states of intention or focus or the various qualities of the bodymind.


Emotional nuances

Of course this sensation of a dynamic force within doesn’t come just in different intensities; it comes in endless nuances of flavours.

It doesn’t just come in vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, either. There is much more creative range and aromatic complexity than in the fanciest designer ice cream shop.

Not everyone is a gourmet here.


Emotional (il)literacy

In fact, the book I’m currently perusing and digesting – Karla McLaren’s “The language of emotions” – argues that American culture (about which she writes specifically, being from the US) is often shockingly emotionally illiterate. Although I have certainly experienced culture shock upon meeting US Americans (if I may gently tease), most of her points apply to the European cultures that I’m familiar with, too.

In brief, the cultural mainstream encourages us to repress, hide, and mask most emotions (except a few “positive” ones) for fear that otherwise we’d either erupt in chaos (which actually happens when emotions are repressed) or sink into an abyss of sentimentality, depression, rage, etc. which bars most people from ever experiencing their feelings in an open way, which is a prerequisite for developing emotional awareness, literacy, and maturity.

However, whether we can perceive and name emotions with in high resolution, perfect contrast, and brilliant colour, or just in a sketch them in a crude pixelised grayscale way – the complex flows and currents, or (for some of us) more frequently shoves and pushes of emotional energy are alive in every moment in everyone.


Energy sensitive = susceptible to the emotional flu?

So if I understand energy as the dynamic aspects inherent in emotional nuance, an energy sensitive person or empath would be someone who easily gets influenced by other people’s (and living beings’) inner flow of emotions and impulses in complex and nuanced ways – to be more precise, who gets “infected” by it (emotional contagion).


Metaphors: Rhythm and flow

Two metaphors come to mind here.

One is synchronisation or emotional entrainment – the way we unconsciously synchronise our walking and movements and even the tempo of our breathing and heartbeat to music (think calming vs. hectic, upbeat vs. downbeat … can you sense yourself skip vs. sigh?). In this metaphor, energy sensitive people would be like musical people – those who can’t hear a tune without dancing or swaying or whistling to it.

The other metaphor is getting swept up in a flow – perhaps getting one’s inner rivers temporarily redirected by the storms that happen in other people. Maybe this is a bit like your internal water being magnetic – somehow the shapes, intensities and rhythms of its flows are magnetically attracted to those in others, temporarily taking on their form.

This, for me, is much closer to what it feels like, on a descriptive and sensory level (with no metaphysical overhead attached), to be energy-sensitive.


Transferring felt senses of emotion dynamics

The above certainly makes for a major and fascinating psychology, psychosomatics and neuroscience research project – understanding why some people’s mindbody systems respond so much more strongly to other people’s inner flows; so strongly, in fact, that when such an energy-sensitive person learns to “read out” the mirror-image that is created in their own body, they can intuitively infer surprising amounts of information about the other person’s state or inner life.

Phew. Ok, I am a little bit more satisfied now, having cleared up some of the confusion I had about ominous terminology.

So were are not transferring electrical currents, thermal energy, photons, or whatever. We are synchronising with and mirroring subtle dynamic emotional flows; and “energy” means the felt sense of dynamics and potentiality inherent in these flows.

So “energy” is the description of the liveliness of these various felt senses in the body. Which are probably made up of emotion, spirit, biology – many things.

Phew. Inquisitive, logical philosopher-mind relaxes a little bit, temporarily.


Enter: Psychic skills

However, there is still something that irks me.

Namely, so far it has been assumed that these synchronisations and over-flows are achieved using the basic, involuntary and automatic human instinct to mirror another’s body language (and the experience the result within one’s own body-emotion-system); with some people doing this more easily and perhaps in far greater detail than average (whether innately or for other reasons; perhaps some of this can even be effected by specific substances).

I have personally lived through many such (verified) mirroring-synchronisation experiences in which no visible body language was involved – either because my eyes were closed, or because the other person was behind my back (often I was behind their back, but one could argue that I’m able to read detailed emotions off of someone’s back / posture – I think that’s likely), or – on another continent. I did also correctly read detailed emotional and physical states (areas of disease in the body) from a few lines of e-mail from total strangers (I tested this just to see if this whole psi-thing is nonsense; I was in shock for weeks on end when it seemed that I had “guessed” e.g. the prior location of someone’s tumour, or their recurring rages, or their depression).

I don’t yet “believe” in this; in fact, I have no idea what “it” is. I allow the possibility that energy can travel over distance – but at least now I don’t have to swallow the idea that it’s “energy” in the physical sense; perhaps, in fact, what travels is – a visceral felt sense – more like information. But I’m not sure if anything travels at all, if “travel” and “transfer” are good descriptions and metaphors for what this feels like.

Shall expand on this later point later, too.

Thoughts will probably follow; I’m considering doing another series of informal energy reading (over distance) experiments. I have taken a long break because the last series left me depleted, somewhat unstable – unable to stop feeling certain people’s states – and confused.

2 thoughts on “What the heck is this “energy” that empaths are sensitive to?

  1. Thanks a lot for that article. I also find it difficult to make sense of how esoteric/spiritual people talk about “energy”, even more so when I sense “it” myself and work with it. And yes, the physics definition doesn’t work, so sometimes I think another word would better, but probably the physics definition of energy is obscure enough to most people, so to fill it with some other meaning doesn’t bother all that many. And it is kind of an established term within that (western) subculture, so I use, knowing fully well, that it is a wrong usage coming from a science point of view.

    I think I have experienced most aspects that you describe, and I have found two more:

    1. Conscious access to subconscious perception, especially relating to body-to-body communication. Since our conscious mind is kind of set ontop of a fully functioning animal brain (that is simplified, of course), the animal brain works on its own, realizing all kind of things from other human animals, including pheromones/chemical messages and messages in body movement, and hides most of this knowledge from the conscious brain to not confuse it. But as empaths or sensitive people, that barrier is thinner and we have partial access to the knowledge of our animal brain, including what it got from other people through body to body communication. I think, quite a few times, when esoterics /spiritual people talk about the energy they feel from another person, it is actually their way to describe what they realize from the message their animal brain got from the other body.

    2. Chi/life force. I am a beginner in Tai Chi, and mostly practice it to learn about working with Chi or life force (even though these days most of what I learn is how to make my body to what I want it to do). I still don’t quite know what this Chi is, but have experienced its effects and am sometimes able to sense it. Probably part of it is also related to body-to-body communication, like tuning in to another body to be able to defend yourself effectively against what they plan to do. But part of it is really having some life force and using it to do stuff, without really involving the body (much). And I think, sometimes in magic rituals I use the same force, but I definitely don’t know that much about it.

    With regard to the question of emotional literacy, or the masking of emotions as you describe it, I think the motivation behind it is largely social or interpersonal: if other people know your emotions, they can hurt you more or manipulate you more, or simply you loose social standing, for example by crying in public. So for ease of living in society, most people mask their emotions so that interactions remain simple and you keep your face. Maybe in an ideal world this wouldn’t be necessary, and different cultures have different ranges of emotions that are acceptable to be displayed in different contexts, but as far as I know, there is always some limit, and this limit makes everyday interactions easier. It took me a while to get that, and I still often don’t like it and often I have a hard time trying to figure out what the currently accepted range is, but that seems to be how it works. The key seems to be to turn up the volume of the emotions I display when I realize that it is actually currently safe to do so.

    And then, the way to mask emotions with the least amount of cognitive energy and cognitive dissonance is, by also masking them before yourself. Hence emotional illiteracy.

    As for the possible overwhelming/getting the emotional flu, which is further increased when psychic abilities come into play, I think the really important ability to learn is being able to tune in and out, as you have described in some other posts. I think it is quite difficult to learn, both the tuning out to avoid overwhelm, as well as, once you have mastered that (kinda), getting back to tuning in when it is the time and place for it. Sometimes I am able to do it, but to manage my everyday life, and being among a lot of people, I tune out big time, and then it really takes some time to actually sense something. And I feel a lot more alive when I do sense stuff, but it is not really doable. Even with trees, if I got to know how every tree is doing while walking through a forest or park, it would be overwhelming, so I try to tune out and only tune in when I do want to connect with one tree.

    It’s quite the learning field. Wish you success!

    1. Tina, thanks a lot for this comment. 🙂

      Like the other one on autism, this one actually gives me new perspectives that I didn’t know of.

      1. Actually, the “animal brain” thing – is exactly how I have come, gradually, to understand and sense this. It’s hard to express it in words, but for example I have noticed that it’s not very hard to make contact with animals on this level – some sort of felt contact. They sometimes seem to respond to it, too. Ever since I’m allowing myself to trust and make more use of this “instinct”, it gets more fun. And I think it often has shortcuts for knowing things that would take much longer to figure out if we’d only be going cerebral about it (like, human neocortex-cerebral :).

      2. I have also practiced Qi Gong and Ki Aikido for a (short) while, but actually I have always sensed that stuff you work with there – spontaneously. It was pretty bewildering when I was a kid – I wasn’t sure if nobody mentions it because it’s so obvious, or because they don’t have it. I never mentioned it to anyone, somehow. Until I was in a Qi Gong class and realised, ok people are using the energy points that I already know from experience. I then also studies Ayurveda – it helped me A LOT to see my experience validated in the traditions of other cultures.

      But, frankly, I have no idea what this Qi is (tho I’ve read books about it, apparently people were/are even trying to study it scientifically in China). If I were to go scientific, I’d say it can probably be understood in categories taken from proprioception and kinaesthesia – some sort of synching or fine-tuning into a delicate state of harmony in bodily tissues and nervous system/brain; which generates specific kinaesthetic sensations. And bodily sensations. But seriously, a clue I do not have.

      If you do, I’m always excited about references on this topic.
      At one point was tempted to write my PhD about this actually, seeing if there’s kinaesthesia / proprioception / body awareness / phenomenological / whatever research on that 🙂
      until I realised just how far off the mainstream this is, and that my supervisor had not the slightest clue and thinks I’m crazy anyways already, ever since I blurted out incidentally that, obviously, I directly perceive sentience and sanctity in all of nature. 🙂

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