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Empathy is a ubiquitous word that has been in use to describe care. It is encapsulated in our

everyday life affairs including activities and interactions as complex social beings, and most

importantly, on how we relate with our fellow humans. Empathy is actively involved with

emotional feeling, by which an individual shows the capacity to feel another emotional stance Zinn (1993) also describes empathy as a root that advanced from a substrate with the addition of relevant experience, memory, and fantasy(a kind of combination between the affective and cognitive way of empathizing). Thus, understanding and sharing in an individual's circumstances while maintaining an observant attitude (Zinn,1993; Szalita,1976; Walter 2012) is also an empathic way of relating with others. Nevertheless, not all individuals have the capacity to show or rather be empathetic towards others. Humans sometimes have the tendency to elicit or inhibit internal states and responses to other individuals (Christov-Moore et al. 2014) and this could be as a result of varying factors including genetics and environmental occurrence. Although empathy is viewed as an inherent occurrence with its inception from evolutionary trends (Dewaal and Preston, 2017), it is also in alliance with the cognitive aspects learned as a result of experiences and further, exhibiting some pros and cons for survival fitness depending on the individual's environment (Nettle, 2006). This essay will focus on an overview of the definition and history of empathy, the neural basis of empathy, factors influencing the differences in empathy expression, the importance of empathy, and finally how to complement both to achieve a common goal and well-being of individuals.


Over the past century, diverse fields of knowledge including philosophers, psychologists, social

scientists, art theorists as well as clinical and medical practitioners have explored the concept of

empathy. Defining empathy is diverse based on the various conceptual approaches applied by

scholars in explaining the discourse. This age-long concept began in the late 19th century and

originated from the German aesthetic word “Einfuhlung” meaning " feeling into”. Robert Visaem(1973), first used the word to describe the psychology of aesthetic appreciation which describes projecting oneself into the object of beauty. Other historical scholars and philosophers(Karl Gross 1892; Kovarch 1984, Vermin Lee 1985) borrowed these ideas into their studies of aesthetic satisfaction as an activity of imitation. In as much as empathy had its inception in German aesthetics, Theodore Lipps( 1903) provided his idea and use of aesthetic satisfaction from a

psychological point of view. His works on optical illusion described the concept of “Einfuhlung”

as in-feeling, which explains the traits of individuals in relation to aesthetic satisfaction. As

explained by Lipps, objects of beauty may elicit aesthetic satisfaction but not aesthetic

satisfaction. His main theory on empathy was to project the innate feelings of sharing and

movements into objects. Thus, aesthetic satisfaction consists of an object not residing in the

object. In support of Lipp's assertion, Prandtl (1910), noted also that individuals only know their

own imaginations and thoughts even though they presume to understand others. Titchener (1909) emphasized his idea of empathy from a psychological perspective of mental images of bodily movements (kinesthetic) rather than just an internal act. Half a century later, the idea of empathy shifted as some psychologists started digressing their observations and ideas about empathy towards the science of social relationships with an emphasis on interpersonal connections with individuals (Leonard and Rosalind 1949). The past few decades have shown the diversity of the concept of empathy beyond psychology, as it extends into fields of primatology and Neuroscience through the discovery of mirror neurons in primates studies and much further in human studies stimulating variety and accelerated growth of research into empathy. Irrespective of the fact that empathy has shown complexity in its evolutionary concepts and definition including aesthetic satisfaction, emotion contagion, motor mimicry, kinesthetic, and mirror neurons amongst others, its focus still channels through a common path connecting all ideas, which is to care for others, as this is an essential instrument applied in our daily life activities and engagements within our contemporary world.


The neural basis of empathy is focused on two important features. Researchers in neuroscience

have related the link between the brain and empathy using various components of empathy that

are connected to perceptions, thoughts, and actions within the various brain networks (Boris et

al., 2012;Engen, 2013). The two most important parts of the brain which are connected to

empathy is the affective parts that control the unconscious and emotional response of

humans, and the cognitive parts which are more involved with the mental and conscious

the perspective of human responses.

Affective part of the Brain. 

Affective empathy is more related to the brain parts which control movement, emotions, and

sensation including the frontoparietal, temporal, and subcortical regions. Monitoring, as well as

the imagination of individuals can activate a corresponding effective situation in relation to the

target that is being observed (Preston and Dewaal, 2012), however, is inspired by a

the connection between what the observer perceived and the actions that are been elicited through

common brain networks (Prinz, 1984). For instance, in the case of mirror neurons among primates

presents the activation of premotor and parietal cortices during observation and elicitation of

actions among primates(Gallese et al. 2004; Keysers and Gazzola 2007; Rizzolattti et al. 2001).

Thus, a notion of shared representation is observed both in a pleasant situations like joy and

likewise in an unpleasant situation like pain. Studies have shown this shared representation to be evident in pleasant situations (Jabbi et al. 2007), and also, in unpleasant situations by observing the

anterior insula, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, brainstem, and cerebellum during pain

stimulation (Singer et al. 2004; Laam et al. 2007b) among women who are with their romantic


The cognitive part of the Brain

Cognitive empathy is more related to parts of the brain that control the consciousness, mental

attributes, and decision-making of individuals. This part includes the cingulate, prefrontal, and

temporal areas which are often triggered during activities involving cognitive empathy (Zaki and

Ochsner, 2012). Researchers on cue studies have revealed activated regions of the brain

including the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal cortex, temporoparietal

junction, and posterior cingulate cortex in processes or activities relating to mentalizing (Frith

and Frith 2003;Van Overwalle 2009; Mitchell, 2009).

It is important to know that, even though both the affective and cognitive regions of the brain

function independently to express specific emotions, sometimes they do not function

independently as they form a collaborative network in the understanding of others' actions,

intentions, beliefs, and emotions. According to the meta-analysis study by Lamm et al. 2011,

There was a robust activation in the anterior cingulate which has extended into the inferior

frontal gyrus and the anterior medial cingulate cortex when empathy for pain is observed in

others suggesting a connection between both the affective and cognitive parts of the brain have been

activated when expressing empathy


The expression of empathy is different among various individuals and this is associated with the underlying effects of innate and environmental factors which have brought about these

differences and the kind of empathy utilized. They include;

Gender Differences: These are the attributive characteristics of what differentiates humans as male

or female. Therefore, creating an aspect of differences in how both genders express empathy.

For instance in evolution studies of primates, female primates form more social cohesion,

consoling and assisting themselves in terms of troubles, more than the male (Preston and

Dewaal, 2012: Gallese et al. 2004). This is a result of their high frequency of mimicry as well

as their emotionally contagious behavior as seen amongst female baboons and bonobos (Palegi et al. 2009; Demuru and Palagi, 2012) and also among human females which is not prominent in male species

Another important aspect is the differences in the specific gender roles(perception of how a man

or woman is expected to behave) associated with both males and females, which has also created a base in their empathic nature. Lauren Wispe (1991) posits empathy as a way that involves perspective-taking or role-taking. Affective role as a way of perspective taking is however more prominent among female gender than in male. Women are expected, based on gender roles to take care of the family and nurture the young ones, a more affectionate way of showing empathy, but, males on the other hand do not take up this role as they apply more cognitive emotion and action with regards to perspective role taking and less likely to show affective empathy like females.

Biological Factors: Some genetic disorders have also been shown to exhibit differences in the

expression of empathy among individuals. In as much as infants have the tendency to elicit a

social association from birth, for instance, their mimicry and synchronized behavior when they

see or hear others do. Nevertheless, some infants exhibit a reduction in this synchronized

behavior and most times, do not even show interest and attention when they perceive a cue from others (Chevallier et al. 2012). This is however a potential factor that shows the sign and onset of autism development among infants. There is also variation in empathic expression among individuals having different kinds of genetic impairment. For instance, among autistic persons and those suffering from mental disorders like the Williams syndrome (Smith, 2009), the expression of empathy is absent in the former, yet present in the latter. This is because autistic patients have lower empathy quotients as they struggle with cognitive empathy in trying to envision other people's thoughts and feelings.

How empathetic we are is partly due to genetics. Aside from the above-mentioned genetic

disorder, research has also related genetics to empathy expression in identical and non-identical twin studies. Zahn-Waxler et al (1992b) posited that the genetic component is responsible for the differences in expressing empathy among monozygotic and dizygotic twins at 14 and 20 months of age, emphasizing that the degree of empathy level is greater in the former than the latter, and, this is as a result of genetic influence and identical resemblance among the monozygotic twins (Martin et al. 1997) than the dizygotic twin

Research has shown also that the differences in affective empathy and cognitive empathy lie in

the developing regions of the brain which are associated with different emotions (Abrahamson et al. 2020). The brain region(including the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula) which is

associated with affective empathy are active and have a stable developmental pattern from

infancy to adulthood with the process beginning during the first few years of life, while the brain

region(including the medial prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe) associated with cognitive

empathy has shown to have a slower and extended developmental pattern, with the

process beginning after the first few years of life (Knafo et al.2008; Tousignant et al. 2017). This

explains why infants and toddlers exhibit mimicry and emotion contagion behavior, although

these behaviors tend to be shaped by life experiences as they grow older.

Environmental factors: Socialization and parenting can also influence the empathic differences

among infants during their age of early development. For instance, maternal bonds can be a crucial factor in explaining how empathy is promoted among toddlers when they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Infants and children who had a strong parental bond and warmth, tend to be more empathetic than those without strong parental bond and warmth (Zhou et al. 2002), when parents provide a warm positive environment to their children, the tendency of them exhibiting and even transfer such learned ability to others will be high and vice versa. Moreover, attachment promotes empathy development in children. When children are securely attached, they display attitudes relating to trust and cordial relationships (Ainsworth et al. 1987). However, when this attachment is lacking, there is distrust and a display of being less empathetic even in situations when empathy is needed. Kestenbaum and Scroufe (1987) in their study on preschool children found that children who were securely attached engaged more in empathic responses as compared to those who were insecurely attached.


The application of empathy begins from the onset of parents exhibiting empathic behavior

towards their offspring, and as they grow older, they grow with this attitude and extend their

prosocial behaviors toward other individuals and the society at large. Thus, creating a healthy

environment for all. Empathy has been an essential tool in both social work and medical fields,

where dealing with humans directly is inevitable. It has been shown to enhance and facilitate

diagnostic, therapeutic, and effective treatment interventions (Hardee, 2003) to proffer better

health outcomes. Effective empathic communication has also facilitated the improvement of the

clinician-patient relationship, and increased efficiency in information gathering making diagnosis

and treatment less cumbersome for both patients and clinicians. In the social dimension, empathy has created positive interpersonal relationships in different societal units including family,

community, school, and workplaces. Individuals employ the use of empathy to enhance their

relationships with others, create positive social connections and problem-solving skills in terms

of conflict and improve societal well-being as a whole. In the treatment of behavioral disorders,

empathy has been shown to reduce the effects of emotional disorders like anxiety and depression when prosocial behavior is applied to individuals experiencing these disorders.

As much as empathy has helped in alleviating individual and societal problems through its

application in different fields to enhance the well-being of individuals. It has also shown to have

a dark side in its application and lack of application. Unfortunately, the find-and-fix perception

within the physical world has been a leading factor in patients' frustration and alienation during diagnostic sessions, especially when cues presented by patients are not recognized and

empathetically approached by physicians (Hardee 2003). Research on physician and patients

relationship has shown that 85% of patients have changed physicians because of their poor

communication skills and inability to apply empathy and care for the patients (Bellet et al. 1991).

Its importance and motivation of prosocial behavior are narrow in their focus, making it subject to

bias. For instance, it motivates cruelty and aggression and can also lead to fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout. This, makes the empathizer become overwhelmed by another person’s emotion and challenges their ability to maintain boundaries while being empathetic. For instance, those in the medical field exhibit a high level of empathy in their early stage of work-life, but, as they

progress and have been subjected to incessant patient suffering (Raquel et al. 2017), they begin to lose empathy and have more experience of compassion fatigue due to daily stress. Moreover, these environmental factors could also affect the neural circuits that control empathy, making it deteriorate due to chronic stress and imbalance at the workplace.


Empathy is a complex discourse encompassing different kinds of concepts in their application

and utilization. The historical perspective as well as the neural connection with empathic

behavior serves as a base for the understanding of how empathy is evolved and has been applied both in the affective and cognitive way. Even Though there are variations among individuals in expressing empathy due to some factors relating to nature and nurture, it is important to understand that empathy is needed in this modern era where lots of socioeconomic and political situations are erupting. The ability to empathize is necessary for promoting positive behaviors toward others and facilitating social interactions and relationships, as it is involved in the internalization of rules that can play a part in protecting others, and, most importantly, it may be the mechanism that motivates the desire to help others, even at a cost to oneself. Notwithstanding, it is important that individuals understand and know their boundaries in terms

of applying empathy to avoid being overwhelmed while being empathetic.


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