The Other Side of Empathy: How Sharing Other People’s Feelings Can Drain You

Buddhist monks have been scanned many times by fMRI machines so neuroscientists can discover the source of empathy. After all, this is the emotion that connects human beings and builds relationships. We are undeniably affected by the feelings of those around us. Smiles are contagious, and misery loves company.

Tania Singer shocked everyone with her theory as she placed another Buddhist monk into the fMRI machine.

Her goal was how to avoid empathy.

An Emotional Virus Called Empathy

Imagine a nursery full of babies. If one bawls, all of them cry as well. They can’t differentiate between their own emotions and the emotions of those around them. Whatever an another baby is feeling, it is felt like a personal sensation.  As we develop, we learn to distinguish these emotions, yet that does not spare us from this contagion.

The distinction between our feelings and those around us is blurred in our minds.

At the University College London, in 2004, Singer and her team placed sixteen romantic couples into an MRI scanner. When they gave a painful electric shock to the subjects, this ignited activity in the region of the brain that reacts to physical pain, and the areas for emotion pain.

The other volunteers who only watched their loved one receive the shock, there was no registration in the brain for physical pain, but the area for emotional pain lit up like fireworks.

Many other studies have backed up this “empathy for pain” network, whether the suffering is psychological or physical.

“The basic principle is the same,” Singer says, now at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Beyond Friends and Family

Many professional caregivers such as hospital staff, nurses, psychotherapists, and paediatricians experience “secondary traumatic stress” and “vicarious traumatization” from an empathetic burnout. Multiple studies link these exposures with a developed indifferent attitude to patients, depersonalization and decreased care.

These cases prove that empathetic burnout can come from strangers, and not necessarily a close relationship. Stress is contagious from anyone’s pain that you share in. One experiment showed that people who watched 15 minutes of a TV newscast felt increased anxiety.

“Experiencing a suffering person’s distress as if it were your own is highly aversive and unpleasant,” says Michael Poulin from the State University of New York.

To Feel Or Not To Feel

“Just like some people are better at regulating their own emotions some are better at regulating empathy,” says Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam.

He believes we are not stuck with the amount of empathy we are born with; rather we can adapt the strategies of others.

In 2014, Keyers examined individuals diagnosed with psychopathy who are believed to lack the capacity for empathy. The team presented the subjects with images of people in pain without further directions. Their brains, as expected, displayed less activity in the regions related to pain than regular people.

Then Keyers requested these psychopathic subjects to emphasize consciously. Surprisingly, their brains became identical to those of the previous group.

The Monk’s Empathy

Tania Singer put her theory to the test. Matthieu Ricard, a biologist turned Buddhist monk who had undergone the training for the heightened capability to manipulate his neural circuitry of empathy, was placed into the fMRI machine.

Previous studies used Buddhist monks similarly. As the volunteers listened to sounds such as a woman screaming in pain, they engaged in loving compassion meditation, where they gradually extend warmth and care from yourself to others. This suppressed activity the regions in the brain that respond to stress and pain.

As Ricard listened to the tortured sounds, Singer asked Ricard to emphasize with the anguish instead of expelling compassion. His empathy part of the brain lit up, and he begged her to stop, calling the experiment “unbearable.”

Protection From Empathy Overload

This study suggests the viewing others with compassion, as opposed to empathy, can distinguish the feelings between you and the other person, and prevent emotional burnout.

Singer’s next volunteers went through compassion training, and their brain responded to negativity similarly to the monk’s.

“Compassion is feeling for and not with the other,” Ricard says.

“I Feel Your Pain”

A healthy amount of empathy is needed in relationships, but when there is an excess of anxiety and anger, it’s time to take a step back. Compassion is the key when is comes to sympathizing with other’s pain, especially if they are strangers.

“It’s not at all clear the world needs more empathy if that means experiencing another person’s suffering as your own,” says Michael Poulin at the State University of New York. “Doing that may simply double the world’s suffering.”


Emma Young. How Sharing Other People’s Feeling Can Make You Sick Published May 11, 2016. Accessed September 8, 2016.

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