Empathy: The Case for Smiling at Strangers :-)~
1st, Let’s Define Empathy
There is not one officially agreed upon definition of empathy in the world of psychology, but a commonly accepted conceptualization of empathy is that it is the understanding and feeling of someone else’s feelings (Scott et al., 2022). It is not just understanding that a person is feeling a certain way (a.k.a sympathy), feeling bad for someone who is sad (a.k.a pity), or even wanting to help someone who is hurting (a.k.a compassion). Instead, the primary factor separating empathy apart from these is the experiencing of someone else’s feelings with them. Let me be clear. This does not mean hopping on the “negativity train” with someone and dragging them down deeper into their emotions. It instead means choosing to walk alongside another person in their experience while maintaining an objective perspective on their situation.
Digging deeper into the makeup of empathy, we find that it has emotional (acceptance of and desire to care for another person), cognitive (understanding another’s perspective), and behavioral (acting altruistically) characteristics (Moudatsou et al., 2020). This only scratches the surface of empathy’s vast impact on human existence which includes its role in healthy neurological development, human connection and socialization, and emotional healing. It is no wonder that we cannot agree on just one definition.
Facial Expression and Empathy Development
Empathy is deeply programmed into the neural networks of the human brain. There is research positing that empathy development can even be observed in infants. Facial expression is the initial key to the development of such primitive empathy (Harada et al., 2016). Studies have found that children as young as 7 months old can accurately identify whether a person is in a positive or negative mood based on the sensory information provided by the combination of facial and vocal indicators (Decety & Holvoet, 2021). Furthermore, research on the empathic functioning of 19-month-old children indicates that they can identify when someone’s facial expression does not appropriately align with a given context (e.g. a fake or forced smile), and by 18-20 months of age they can express concern for the distress they observe in others (Decety & Holvoet, 2021).
Spreng et al. (2009) report that research through neuroimaging shows the firing of what are called mirror neurons in the brain of someone who observes someone else’s experience. While mirror neurons are commonly thrown into the discussion of empathy, we should be careful not to assign them too much causal power in the neurological functions of emotional empathy because they are primarily involved in motor functioning. One argument against the involvement of mirror neurons in emotional empathy is that their functioning, “reflects rather than contributes to action understanding” (Lamm & Majdandžić, 2015, p. 19); ergo, the name, mirror neurons. However, they are worth mentioning in this conversation simply because research suggesting their involvement in empathic expression continues to come to light. For example, one study using electromyography (EMG) found that the observed facial expression of one person elicits a subthreshold response in the facial muscles of the observer that can then cause the observer to feel the associated emotion (Harada et al., 2016). Consider this as an example. Think about what happens when you smile at someone while walking down a sidewalk. More often than not, you will receive a smile back in response even if that person may not have been feeling happy. What the aforementioned study suggests is that the person you smiled at may actually go on to experience an improvement in their mood simply because you smiled at them as you walked by. This is called emotional contagion. Based on this and other similar studies, one can perhaps make a strong argument that mirror neurons at least facilitate some emotional empathy processes in the brain.
Empathy Creates Connection
Empathy is such an inherent part of being human that it often shows itself in ways we may not even realize. Lamm and Majdandžić (2015) state that having empathy for someone else’s experience actually activates in the observer’s brain the same cluster of neurons that would if they were directly experiencing it themselves. Have you ever watched a video of someone breaking a bone? Have you ever watched a comedian’s performance completely flop? In either of these scenarios I am willing to bet that on some small level you felt that pain or embarrassment. Sometimes even the mention of a coworker’s papercut on their hand makes me immediately grasp my own hand as if it happened to me. That is empathy at work.
The truth is that we are wired to empathize with others’ experiences, both happy and painful. Empathy is what drives us to care for others and is fundamental in establishing a healthy moral compass; conversely, a lack of empathy can result in the detrimental impairment of one’s emotional and social functioning (Decety & Holvoet, 2021). This connection that empathy creates is crucial to healing emotional wounds. People often come to therapy expecting to be given tools and practical steps toward being happier. Yes, that is a beneficial piece of it, but I do not believe that aspect of therapy is what promotes the genuine long-term healing change people seek. Based on my experience and the supporting research, empathy is the foundational component of therapeutic healing. People seem to benefit from just feeling heard and understood much more than they do from the coping tools they are given.
I’ll end with an example from Pixar’s movie, Inside Out. In my opinion, this movie encapsulates empathy wonderfully by representing our emotions, cognitive processes, choices, and behaviors through animated characters. One scene in particular demonstrates empathy’s healing power. In this movie, the characters live inside a girl’s brain as personifications of her neural makeup.
The three characters in this scene are Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong. Bing Bong resides in the girl’s brain as her former imaginary friend, and he starts crying because he is afraid he has been forgotten by the child who is growing into adolescence. Upon seeing this, Joy tries to cheer him up through an overabundance of positivity. Noticing that this does not make Bing Bong feel any better, Sadness goes over to sit next to him. She validates Bing Bong’s feelings, shows understanding for why he feels that way, and then allows herself to feel that sadness alongside him (without hopping on the “negativity train”). Bing Bong, like most of us when we are feeling down, did not need advice or encouraging words. All he needed was for someone to listen, understand, and feel his sadness alongside him, even if only for a brief moment.
Decety, J. & Holvoet, C. (2021). The emergence of empathy: A developmental neuroscience perspective. Developmental Review, (62), 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2021.100999
Harada, T., Hayashi, A., Sadato, N. & Iidaka, T. (2016). Neural correlates of emotional contagion induced by happy and sad expressions. Journal of Psychophysiology, 30(3), 114-123. DOI: 10.1027/0269-8803/a000160
Lamm, C. & Majdandžić, J. (2015). The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy – A critical comment. Neuroscience Research, (90), 15-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neures.2014.10.008
Moudatsou, M., Stavropoulou, A., Philalithis, A. & Koukouli, S. (2020). The role of empathy in health and social care professionals. Healthcare, (8)26, 1-9. doi:10.3390/healthcare8010026
Scott, K., Boccaccini, M.T., Trupp, G., Murrie, D.C. & Hawes, S. (2022). Evaluator empathy in risk assessment interviews. Law and Human Behavior, 46(5), 325-336. https://doi.org/10.1037/lhb0000492
Spreng, R.N., McKinnon, M.C., Mar, R.A. & Levine, B. (2009). The Toronto empathy questionnaire: Scale development and initial validation of a factor-analytic solution to multiple empathy measures. Journal of Personality Assessment, 9(1), 62-71. DOI: 10.1080/00223890802484381