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Understanding empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and feel what others are experiencing. Although it is common to a large number of mammals, it is found very strongly in Homo sapiens. However, the level of empathy can be very different from one person to another. This characteristic, which thus becomes a strength or weakness in us, is a more complex faculty than one might imagine.

How does empathy manifest itself?

According to Anaïs Roux, author of the Neurosapiens podcast and a book of the same title, there are two forms of empathy: affective and cognitive.

Affective empathy is the one most commonly experienced. It refers to the ability to feel the emotions of others, while avoiding confusing them with one's own. There is always a risk of emotional contagion. And while it's desirable to put oneself in the other person's shoes to better perceive what they're experiencing, it's important not to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by these emotions, in order to maintain self-control.

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, consists in understanding the emotions or state of mind of others, without actually feeling them. Here, we are involved in an intellectual process of recognizing the emotions experienced by others, without actually identifying with them.

To help us understand the difference between these two types of empathy, Anaïs Roux compares them to the two sides of a coin.

Affective empathy, corresponding to the visible side of the coin, acts in a bottom-up way, i.e. it synthesizes in someone the basic elements of emotions perceived in others. Empathic people experience the emotions they perceive in others, and react to them in their bodies.

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, can be compared to the other side of the coin: it acts in a top-down fashion, using cognition to analyze the overall picture and identify each of the emotions expressed by the other person. The empath has detailed knowledge of these emotions, but remains detached.

These two approaches work in parallel, depending on the moment or the emotions involved.

Even so, some people are more likely to show cognitive empathy, while others tend to show affective empathy. For example, we know that people who lack the ability to feel pain (see studies by Danziger, 2009) are unable to feel another's affect. The only empathy they show is of a cognitive and rational nature, since the emotions shown by others do not reach them. In general, these people have a lower level of empathy.

Empathy and neuroscience

The most recent research attempts to demonstrate that empathy is the result of the effect of mirror cells.

"Mirror neurons are a category of neurons in the brain that show activity both when an individual performs an action and when he observes another individual performing the same action, or even when he imagines such an action, hence the term "mirrorˮ", explains neurologist Claire Dussaule ( Mathon 2013).

These neurons are thought to play an important role in social cognition, among other things through learning by imitation. They are also thought to play a major role in forging empathy, by reinforcing the ability to feel what the other person is feeling.

Neuroscience describes empathy as a cognitive process that involves a broad spectrum of brain activity and the participation of a large number of brain structures. It's an intense work of representation and imagination that takes place within us in order to be able to feel what the other is experiencing.

The ability to adopt the other person's perspective comes from activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead. Another activated area is thought to be at the temporo-parietal junction, behind your ears. The source of empathy is the amygdala, which plays (among other things) an important role in recognizing fear in the faces of others.

Abigail Marsh's 2019 studies showed that people with a greater capacity to activate the amygdala, and who therefore better recognized fear in the faces of others, gave more money and time to people in difficulty. They would therefore show a higher level of empathy.

In several of this researcher's studies, it was found that children with personality disorders who showed different activation of the amygdala in their social relationships expressed lower levels of empathy than the average person.

Part of empathy could therefore stem from genetic traits. Further research is needed to validate this hypothesis, but initial studies seem to point in this direction. Currently, we attribute the degree of empathy to personality development.

An important conclusion, according to Anaïs Roux, is that empathy is ON in the vast majority of the population, whereas it is OFF in people suffering from mental disorders (i.e., with a personality disorder or psychopathology). This is confirmed by brain imaging, which shows greater brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala in people who show a higher level of empathy recognized by others.

The ability to empathize enables humans to better anticipate and recognize emotions, and thus make better predictions about the intentions and needs of others. This ability would lead to prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and mutual aid.

What about psychometrics?

Personality tests that measure empathy do not indicate whether it is affective or cognitive in nature. Their results are a self-reported measure of empathy (compared with that of others via normative data), with the person being asked to judge how he or she would behave or what attitude he or she would adopt in everyday situations.


Anaïs Roux, Neurosapiens, Paris, Les éditions Les Arènes, 2023.

B. Mathon, Les neurones miroirs : de l'anatomie aux implications physiopathologiques et thérapeutiques, Revue Neurologique,Volume 169, Issue 4, 2013, Pages 285-290, ISSN 0035-3787,

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