Hannah Holmes, author of “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality,” discusses about doing with empathy.
Q: What does it mean to be empathetic and how does it affect people’s actions?
A: The human brain has the ability to directly “feel into” another human’s emotions. When you watch someone whack their finger with a hammer, your brain’s pain region flares as though the hammer hit your own. The same is true for witnessing someone’s emotional pain.
Presumably, we evolved this mirroring system so we could form strong bonds within a community. Humans were so frail and our babies so helpless we couldn’t survive as solitary animals. We were dependent on the relationships we built.
Q: Why are some people more empathetic than others?
A: Every social animal — wolf, dolphin, mouse — must strike a balance between supporting his/her community and building on his/her own genetic legacy.
If a mouse is too social, she might not spend enough energy storing her own food and raising strong children. If she’s too self-oriented, she’ll have a hard time finding babysitters when she needs to gather food.
Within those two extremes, each animal’s “empathy dial” is set differently — no single setting suffices to overcome the opportunities and catastrophes nature throws at us.
Q: Is there any evidence of a gender component to empathy?
A: Oh, yes! Consider the female role in reproduction before we had hospitals, baby food and daycare — we risked our lives to give birth. We had to carry and oversee the (loud) infant for years, which cramped our hunting style.
So, for starters, females needed a chemical brake on the brain’s instinct for self-preservation. (Child abuse can result when the brakes fail.) All this means females have a long head-start on males when it comes to detecting, reacting and coping with other people’s emotions.
Males are generally freer to go it alone and their brains reflect that — they aren’t as good at deciphering emotional expressions, so they’re naturally less empathetic.
Q: Is there a sweet spot for empathy?
A: Moderation in all things! I’m so naturally empathetic it’s uncomfortable. Violent movies slash my brain to ribbons, I sniffle through dramas and would rather pull out my thumbnails than see an animal in pain. I had to learn to steer away from people who revel in their travails and traumas, because I would batter myself to bits trying to save them.
Having a low-empathy brain frees you to act decisively and efficiently, because your brain is not distracted by the emotional implications of your actions. But it can be an isolating temperament — few people want to help someone who doesn’t help them. Striking a balance is important.
Q: If you’re not particularly empathetic, can you learn to be more sensitive?
A: While your personality is not very malleable, you can alter the behaviors your personality produce. We all use white lies to bridge the gap between our personality and the demands of a smooth social life: “Please take the last cookie!” “No, I don’t mind waiting;” “What a beautiful baby!”
This brings us to the difference between empathy, which is the sensing of others’ emotions, and sympathy, which is acting on information.
A low-empathy person can learn to analyze situations and produce an appropriate act of sympathy. When we groan, “Who cares if your pet turtle died,” our brain can step in with, “I know you loved Scooter, so you must feel very sad.” It’s a system we can fall back on when we feel unmoved by others’ emotions.