Do empaths exist? Many people who claim to be highly sensitive or intuitive to the emotions of others and even to feel what others feel would respond with an enthusiastic “yes.” But exactly what is an empath?
Scientific studies that are often used to demonstrate that empaths exist, however, have provided only indirect evidence.
This includes research showing the existence of mirror neurons in the brain, which are said to enable us to read and understand each other’s emotions by filtering them through our own (Iacobani, 2008). Other studies used to explain empaths include the concept of emotional contagion, which is the idea that when people synchronize their attitudes, behaviors, and speech, they also synchronize their emotions both consciously and unconsciously (Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson, 1994).
These studies explain the existence of empathy in general. They do not explain why some people — empaths — have more of it than others.
But what if we could examine the brains of empaths to gain an understanding of how they differ from the average brain and learn what the effects of those differences might be?
How the Brain May Explain to Us What an Empath Is
Neuroscientist and psychologist Abigail Marsh may have done just that. She describes in her book The Fear Factor (2017) how she found evidence that there is a difference in the brains of people who are highly empathetic to others. She calls them “altruists.”
Marsh was motivated, based on her personal experiences, to learn what causes people to engage in selfless acts even when there is no benefit to themselves or when there is a cost involved. She recruited people for her studies who had engaged in the most extreme selfless act that fit into this category she could think of: donating kidneys to complete strangers, often anonymously.
To learn how they responded to the emotions of others, she measured their brain activity while showing them pictures of faces with varying emotional expressions. Compared with a control group (those who had not donated a kidney), they were especially sensitive to fearful facial expressions. When they recognized fear, there was heightened activity in the amygdalae in their brains. The amygdalae were also eight percent larger than those belonging to members of the control group.
Although she never refers to the altruists as empaths, I believe there are good reasons for applying the label “empaths” to this group of people in her research.
First, there are different types of altruism, including kin-based, reciprocity-based, and care-based (Marsh, 2016). Her research appears to support care-based altruism, where no reward or genetic reward to the self is expected. The motivation for this type of altruism is thought to be possible solely because of concern for the well-being of others, or empathy (Batson, 1991).
This appears to suggest that the group of individuals for whom she found measurable differences in the brains were not only highly altruistic, they were also highly empathetic — perhaps what we think of as “empaths.”
Second, empaths and psychopaths have often been noted anecdotally as being polar opposites (Dodgson, 2018), but Marsh actually refers to the altruists in her study as “anti-psychopaths” because of what her findings showed.
She had also examined the brains of psychopaths and found the exact opposite of what she had found for the altruists. The psychopaths were less able to recognize fear on the faces of others and less responsive to it when they did. The psychopaths also had amygdalae that were about eighteen percent smaller than normal.
In other words, both the altruists and the psychopaths had abnormal brains when it came to responses to the fear of others — but in opposite directions. This appears to support the idea that they are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to empathy: psychopaths cannot feel and react to the fear of others (unless they have another motive) while altruists, or empaths, feel and are moved to respond to the fear of others as if it were their own.
What Else Do We Know About These Empaths?
Marsh was mostly interested in their acts of altruism and what motivated them, so there is little in her research to give us a clue about what their lives are like beyond their acts of altruism.
There was one interesting commonality, however. Her research indicates that, temperamentally, they appear to have more humility than average, and it is this humility that appears to enable them to treat strangers with such selflessness.
She writes, “Although they are clearly more sensitive than average to others’ distress, their capacity for compassion and generosity reflects the same neural mechanisms that lie latent in most of humankind. Indeed, it is in part the fact that altruists recognize that they are not fundamentally different from anyone else that moves them to act.”
This appears to correspond to some popular conceptions of empaths as having a higher degree of compassion and caring for others than average, being strongly in tune with the emotions of others, having a compelling desire to heal, assist and give others the benefit of the doubt– sometimes even to the detriment of themselves.
Now that we can potentially identify who they are, further research can tell us more about how being an empath affects their lives and, perhaps more importantly, how empaths can protect their strengths from exploitation given that this research indicates that they tend to view everyone as equally deserving of their assistance.
Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Dodgson, L. 2018. The opposite of a psychopath is an ‘empath’—here are the signs you could be one. Business Insider. Retrieved July 22, 2018. http://www.businessinsider.com/am-i-an-empath-2018-1?r=UK&IR=T
Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T. and Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional contagion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Iacobani, M. (2008). Mirroring people: the science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Marsh, A. (2017). The fear factor: how one emotion connects altruists, psychopaths & everyone in between. New York: Basic Books.
Marsh, A. (2016). Neural, cognitive, and evolutionary foundations of human altruism. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 7(1), 59-71.
A version of this article appeared online at PsychCentral: New Research May Support the Existence of Empaths