The science of empathy

Empathy is an ability to identify with someone else’s situation so thoroughly that you may share their emotions. Human beings seem to be wired for it, and it has been shown to start quite early. Toddlers react to a person in distress very similarly to adults–they show concern and sometimes experience distress themselves. They ask what happened and offer hugs. Even newborn infants show pre-empathy by reacting with more distress to the cry of another infant than they do to other loud or averse noises. (1)

This early beginning shows how important empathy is to our species. Evolutionary biologists point out that the biggest predictor of brain size is social group, with the implication that big brains are more necessary for groups that need to take care of each other. In fact, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman points out that the non-active human brain defaults to a social thinking configuration that helps us make “sense of other people and ourselves.” (2)

Empathy benefits all parties

Patients of empathic doctors tend to have better recovery rates, according to recent research. In 2009, 350 patients with cold symptoms at two hospitals in Wisconsin evaluated their doctors on empathy scores. Patients with more empathic doctors were found to be sick nearly a day less than those whose doctors scored lower in empathy. (3)

The perceived availability of the social network helps reduce stress and even pain. Fibromyalgia patients with a significant other present showed less pain sensitivity to tender points than those who were alone. In an interesting study from the animal kingdom, a female mouse writhing in pain would writhe less when approached by a cage mate, but showed no attenuation of writhing when a strange mouse approached. (4)

Empathy has a positive effect on empathic individuals as well–they report lower stress, anxiety, hopelessness and depression. Empathic people tend to be kinder and more cooperative, fostering closer relationships. (5)

Empathy in action

Now that you know the whys and wherefores of empathy, it is time to act on your inclinations to help! Today’s challenge is to call or text a sick friend. Here are a few ways to serve someone who is sick.

Listen. Whether your friend has the flu or something more serious, call and really listen. Gather clues from your conversation as to what he or she needs.
Offer specific help. “Call me if you need anything” will go down in history as the least helpful offer in the history of illness. Say, “Can I drop by and do laundry on Wednesday?” “Has anyone set up a grocery delivery service for you?” “Why don’t I pick up your kids from school every Monday?” These specific offers are more likely to be taken, and you can make a real difference in the comfort of your friend.
Write a letter or card. If someone you love has a serious illness, the written word can brighten his or her day. My grandmother, who is quite senile, loves to receive cards. She will not remember a phone call five minutes later, but those cards and letters can be read and reread.
Bring light reading or entertainment. Light reading–meaning no long tomes about their illness or alternative treatments. Calvin and Hobbes, Cosmopolitan, People… easy distractions. You get the idea.
Chat naturally and positively with your friend–don’t change your natural relationship. Laugh with them if the situation calls for it.
Stick with it. If the illness goes long as illnesses sometimes do, keep up the support.

The evolution of empathy–read here about other species that display empathic traits:

Click this link for the story of Rep Wasserman Schultz and Rep Gabrielle Giffords–how to help a sick friend:

Read more about the human brain and empathy in this fascinating article:


McDonald, NM and Messinger DS. (in press). The Development of Empathy: How, When, and Why. In Acerbi A, Lombo JA, Sanguineti JJ. Free Will, Emotions, and Moral Actions: Philosophy and Neuroscience in Dialogue. IF-Press.
Social ties are good for your health. BeWell@Stanford. Accessed Sep 27, 2016.
Rakel DP, Hoeft TJ, Barrett BP, Chewning BA, Craig BM, Niu M. Practitioner empathy and the duration of the common cold. Fam Med. 2009 Jul-Aug;41(7);494-501.
Decety J and Fotopoulou A. Why empathy has a beneficial impact on others in medicine: unifying theories. Front Behav Neurosci. 2014;8:457.
Konrath S and Grynberg D. The positive (and negative) psychology of empathy. In Watt D and Panksepp J (eds.) The Neurobiology and Psychology of Empathy, 2013, Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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