The Neuroscience of Empathy. Can We Become More Empathic?

I have always been really moved by the feelings of others. I knew that as a therapist starting out, I would have to learn to recognise, understand and manage my own emotions while holding space for the emotions of my clients. I also knew that empathy was something that had pulled me into this space. Now as I explore the world of coaching with Sandown Business School I still feel this pull towards understanding empathy, not only as a skill but as a necessity in any work supporting others.

Bill Bullard says, ‘Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability and no understanding. The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self-kind of understanding.” Empathy is often referred to as walking in the shoes of another to understand their feelings. Much research has been completed on the neuroscience of empathy over the centuries. In fact, empathy is regarded as such a complex social phenomenon, it has fascinated scholars and scientists for years.

The original fMRI study on the neuroscience of empathy was completed by Singer and colleagues in 2004. The main learning from this study was that the neural networks involved in empathy are the same as those involved when we experience the emotion ourselves. This shows us that we understand and share the emotions of others by processing them, in part, through our own emotional system.

So how exactly do we process the emotions of others and turn on our empathy switch?

Neurobiological and neuroimaging studies show that empathy is a complex phenomenon. It stimulates our emotional and cognitive states internally. Neuroscience has uncovered many aspects of empathy. One aspect of empathy is the two modes of processing within the brain that are involved: bottom-up and top-down. The bottom-up processing mode contains the mirroring representation system. This involves the simulation theory. Basically, as humans when we see someone experience an emotion, we ‘simulate’ or represent the same emotion in ourselves, so we know first-hand what it feels like. We think, ‘What if that happened to me?’. On the other hand, the top-down processing mode involves the cognitive perspective, also refers to as the theory of mind. The theory of mind concept is the ability we have to understand what another person is thinking and feelings based on rules for how one should think and feel. For example, if my friend rings me and tells me she got a flat tyre, I will understand how she feels based on how I think she should feel.

Researchers have identified several regions of the brain that participate in the empathic response including the prefrontal cortex, insula, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex. These brain regions engage in processing social and emotional information, including empathy. Studies have shown that when we empathise with others, these regions become activated, leading to increased blood flow to these areas.

What in the monkey’s?

Research shows that the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) plays a big role in empathy. During the studies, mirror neurons were originally discovered in the central promoter (area F5) and the parietal cortex (area PF) in the brains of monkeys. The mirror neurons within the monkey’s brain lit up in response to goal-directed actions. The goal-directed actions included asking the monkey to hold, grasp, or manipulate an object. What is interesting from these studies is that when the monkeys observed another monkey or human holding, grasping, or manipulating an object, the same area of their brain also lit up. So, the MNS operates as a mirror. If I hold something in my left hand, your MNS understands this action by activating your own neural representation of this as if you were doing it.

Canonical neurons are also involved in the empathy process. These neurons selectively fire in response to specific stimuli, such as faces, objects, or senses. They play a crucial role in visual perception and memory. This goes some way towards explaining why body language and facial expressions are so important in reading someone’s feelings and how they are.

One of my fears as a therapist starting out was that I may become overwhelmed by the stories of my clients. However, my brain had that covered. The mirror neurons communicate with other areas of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, to ensure we do not become overwhelmed when we are being empathic. The prefrontal cortex is important for reducing personal distress and connecting on a more cognitive level. This helps us to gain perspective.

Feel the pain

Empathy is often referred to as understanding another’s pain. This makes a lot of sense when we explore the neuroscientific evidence supporting empathy and pain. Wicker et al., (2003) discovered that the anterior insular (AI) cortex and the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC) were activated in response to seeing another in pain. the AI and the aMCC are part of the pain neuromatrix. This network is activated when a person experiences pain. So it is possible for us to feel the pain of others as our brains activate the same neural pathways as if we had experienced the pain ourselves. Paper cut, anyone? We experience the pain, however, in an attenuated form. Attenuation allows us to not become distressed during the empathic process.

Research is ongoing as to the exact processes involved in empathy. It is, without a doubt, a complex process involving different theories and areas in the brain. Current research would indicate that empathy is regulated by both cognitive and affective components. Cognitive components help us to understand how another person feels. Affective components help us to feel what they feel.

As a core skill within many professions, teaching, counselling, social science, and coaching, empathy is no longer considered a soft skill, but rather a skill that involves scanning data, sorting the data, and then analysing it for essential information. Neuroscience has shown that empathy is a skill that can be built upon and strengthened over time.

Here are some ways to build your empathy:

Listen actively: Listening actively is the key to developing empathy. When someone is talking to you, truly listen to them without interrupting or getting distracted. This helps you to understand their perspective and shows them that you respect their feelings.

Put yourself in their shoes: Try to imagine how you would feel if you were in the other person’s situation. This helps to build your emotional intelligence and sense of empathy.

Practice reflection: After a conversation or interaction with someone, take some time to reflect on what was said and how you saw and interpreted the situation. This helps you to analyse your own emotional response and reflect on how you engage with others.

Be open-minded: Try to keep an open mind and avoid making assumptions about others. Acknowledge that everyone has their own unique perspective, and strive to understand them.

Build connections: Seek out opportunities to connect with others. As you build connections with others, you naturally develop empathy skills over time.

By Nicola Culloty

Student at Sandown Business School

Founder of Full Circle CBT, an online practice offering CBT to children, adolescents, and adults.


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