What is Empathy?

Empathy is the action of understanding and being sensitive to certain feelings and thoughts. Empathy is used regularly in everyday life, helping us to form friendships, care for the needy and be kind to others. But, have you ever wondered what the science is behind empathizing? Read on to find out!

On September 14, 1848, a railroad construction explosion left 25 year old Phineas Gage with an iron rod through his skull. Don’t worry, he survived, but people said that his accident changed him into a “rude and inconsiderate” person, whose mind has “radically changed”. His friends even said that he was “no longer Gage”.This accident showed scientists that the ability to share another person’s feelings has deep neurological roots. 

More than 100 years later, scientists used the 1848 case to try and explain he link between neuroscience and empathy. Through the use of MRI machines, it was found out that the iron bar had penetrated Gage’s brain in an area known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC). This area is 1 of the 10 brain areas (more areas are yet to be discovered) that is involved in the neural circuit that is somewhat responsible for the feeling of empathy. When Gage damaged this area of his brain, he lost the ability to feel empathy and hence, turned into the rude and inconsiderate version of himself.

An experiment was undergone based on the vMPFC to find its functions. When people were faced with violent and emotionally distressing images, the vMPFC is activated and causes physiological changes in the body (like increased heart rate, for example). In addition to this, people with injuries in the vMPFC tended to become socially uninhibited and are less responsive to emotionally distressing situations.

Neurons, on the other hand, light up when a person experiences pain or sees someone else in pain – this allows us to ‘put ourselves in someone else’s shoes’ are empathize with their pain. Other areas off the brain like the right tempoparietal junction and posterior superior temporal sulcus also allow us to process intentions of another person or experience someone else’s emotional pain. However, scientists still believe there is a long way to go before we truly know what empathy is. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen said:

We still know very little about individual differences in empathy. […] We will need elegant experimental research to solve these puzzles.”

Relating this to medicine, empathy is a vital skill that is required to practice as a doctor. Luckily, new studies have shown that the act of empathizing can in fact be learnt – reading more fiction novels can excite imagination and increase empathetic responses in everyday life. Some scientists think empathy is so important that it should be included in lessons at school. What do you think?

 3D image of Gage’s skull

Thank you for taking the time to read this weeks blog, I hope you found it an interesting read! Feel free to leave a rating or a comment on what you want to see me write about next.



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