Ethics – Empathy – Mechanisms

Friday, February 19th, 2010 at 9:23 pm.
by pre.

We have seen that your ability to empathize, to feel what others are feeling automatically, instinctively, just from the look on their face, the words they utter, the tone in their voice, the simple knowledge of their plight, or any combination of these, has evolved because it’s actually genuinely helpful. To you. Not because it’s helpful to the person you’re empathizing with, not because it’s helpful to society as a whole, not because of some cosmic force of love in the universe. Because it’s actually, positively, at least for a person living in human society, a benefit to you. Personally.

It helps you to vicariously understand the world in which you live, helps you to win friends, helps you to build connections with others, helps you to gather around you all the things which you need to be successful in life.

How does it work?

Not like on Star Trek. There are no empathic rays shining out from a person’s aura. There’s no such thing as an Empathon particle. It’s not magic. It just works through the normal every-day physical processes that govern your perceptions, and your mind.

You literally use your brain in the same way that they’re using theirs. You mentally put yourself in their position.

We talk a lot about the differences between us, because they are what makes each of us unique, but the number of things we have in common vastly outnumber the differences. You have much less in common with a rock, or a star, or a snake, or a banana than you do with even the most different human being on the planet. The number of things you are utterly different to in the universe is almost infinitely more than the 7 billion or so people who are, by comparison, just exactly the same. Our brains all work, essentially, the same way. Our faces are wired to our emotional systems in the same way. Our limbs and our voice control all work the same way. We all have similar emotional responses to similar things and those emotional responses effect the way we move, think, speak, the look in our eyes, in more or less the same way.

This is what makes empathy possible.


Just as your brain doesn’t tell you how frightened you are by inching up a dial on a Head Up Display over your vision, or by a flashing red light indicating “Angry” up over your blind-spot, so it is with the empathic response you have to others.

There is no blinking warning reading “This person is angry!” or “Ahha! He’s getting turned on”. You only become aware of this empathic response by the way it makes you feel. If someone you are talking to is angry, you’ll know this mostly because that will make you angry. If they are sad, it will make you sad.

This is the key to taking the most advantage from the empathic super-power that humans are blessed with: The understanding that the emotions you feel are not all your own. Learning to lower your walls to let yourself feel the way others are feeling, and also to teach yourself to separate them out, to tease out the thread of the way they are feeling from the way you are feeling.

In this way, you can become more aware, more conscious of the difference, be better able to properly attribute your emotional responses. Better able to lead people towards the emotional space they want to be in.


Understanding of the pathways which the information wave spreads from one person to another will help you do this.

Imagine yourself in conversation with another person. Something you’ve said, or something they’ve said, or something happening around you, affects them in some way. This is happening all the time, but noticing the most obvious occasions and paying attention to them will help you to learn how to do it more effectively all the time, constantly, even during the more subtle moments.

This event is processed by their brain. Unless it’s a very unusual event, this won’t be deliberately, it won’t be consciously, the person you are talking with will not even be aware it’s happening. Yet their brain will be set ticking.

After a few milliseconds of processing, their brain will have changed the underlying understated way that they feel. The indescribable multi-dimensional emotional state which all of us have will have altered.

This, in turn, changes the way their muscle control neurons respond, all over the body. It minutely stretches or flexes muscles in the face, the eyes especially. It changes the tightness of their vocal chords, affecting the pitch of their voice. It alters the diameter of their pupils. Makes tiny changes to their posture, to the way their hairs stand up from their body.

You do not notice these things consciously. You will likely never notice these things consciously, and doing so would be such a burden on your consciousness that it’d just be distracting. But they do not remain unnoticed by your subconscious.

Your mind, meanwhile, deep under the surface of your attention, responds to these signals. The mirror neurons deep in it’s structure fire as though these subtle and consciously invisible actions were performed by you yourself.

This, in turn, makes similar tiny inaudible changes to the way your own emotional state feels. Remember, at least part of your brain is reacting in the same way that their brain is reacting. It’s experiencing those same slight shifts in posture, in tone, in timbre, in understanding itself.

Those shifts, those changes, are now in both of your brains. And the more you converse, the more they actually affect your body, they will filter back again to the person who first performed them.

Your mind has filters, it’s mirror neurons aren’t as strong as the actual movement neurons. You can turn those filters down. You can allow yourself to feel your conversational partner’s emotions more, or less. Learning to turn those filters down will help you to empathize better. To feel more strongly connected.

Your mind also has discrimination. If you learn to concentrate on the source of your emotional reactions, you can learn to better discriminate their cause.

How can you improve it?

Next week we’ll present a guided meditation, a guided lucid dream, in which you’ll spend ten minutes dreaming to improve your empathic skills, and set up the right suggestions and associations which will ensure you also improve them while awake.