Reconsidering Empathy: A Look At The Neuroscience of Compassion

In our methodical exploration of empathy, which is one of the key components of emotional intelligence, we’ve distinguished empathy from sympathy, and we’ve considered ways to zoom out from our own life perspective in order to contemplate the countless other points of view in this big world. In my latest article You’re Not Alone: Why Practicing Empathy Requires Going Inward, I even shared three steps to being empathetic inspired by the master of the topic, Brené Brown.

Just as I differentiated between sympathy and empathy at the beginning of this exploration, I’d now like to add an interesting wrinkle to the conversation by differentiating between empathy and compassion, and even suggest that you have the opportunity to become an early adopter of a new accepted truism: Compassion is even more impactful than empathy. Wait, WHAT?

Can You Become Empathy-Fatigued?

You read correctly! The discovery that compassion is such an essential part of the EQ equation is yet more proof that we’re living in such an exciting time for scientific exploration. Thanks to fMRI machines, we now know that compassion and empathy affect the brain in different ways.

Tania Singer, Director of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, has used MRI scanners to show that compassion and empathy “are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.”

“When we think compassionately we ‘light up’ the same regions of the brain as love, but empathetic thinking lights up regions associated with pain”, she added.

Chris Kukk, Ph.D., a professor of political science at Western Connecticut State University and author of the upcoming book The Compassionate Achiever, clarifies the distinction between compassion and empathy. Kukk defines compassion as feeling kindness towards another person and is about acquiring a 360-degree understanding of the suffering or problem that a person is experiencing and taking action to resolve it.

“Compassion is a two-step process of understanding and acting but empathy is only one step and it is about emotionally absorbing the feelings of another.”

Compassion fatigue is really empathy fatigue. Kukk also explains that compassion “creates the release of the peptide hormone oxytocin, which then activates the neurotransmitters of dopamine (brain reward) and serotonin (anxiety reduction) contributing to happiness and optimism. These are the same neuronal pathways as love.”

This is parallel to what DRIVEN has explored in earlier articles about self-regulation; when we sense danger or fear, the amygdala, or primitive part of the brain, is alerted and signals the neurotransmitter cortisol to be released for self-protection. Similarly, when we sense that someone is sorrowful and in need, we can make a decision to express either empathy or compassion. When we do, our brain lights up, but contrasting hormones are secreted into our body.

Achieving Our Evolutionary Potential

The intriguing thing about the chemistry of compassion is that we can choose to release the healthier hormones. Psychologist and meditation practitioner Tara Brach vividly illustrates the difference between these two capacities.

“Empathy is the ability to feel what other people feel….compassion includes empathy, and it also has the quality of caring and concern that wants to help. Compassion means ‘to suffer together’, but it is really defined by a quivering of the heart that wants to help. Compassion is our evolutionary potential. We have a capacity for affiliate care. Compassion can be cultivated!”

That “quivering of the heart” metaphor is particularly eloquent. It communicates that compassion leaves us feeling tender towards the other, unlike empathy alone, which can spiral us into fatigue. Compassion feels good. And it’s clearly the practicing Buddhist in Brach who says, “compassion is our evolutionary potential”. What she stopped short of mentioning, however, is that it’s also our evolutionary heritage. I’ll explore that with you in a follow-up article.