Empathy is awareness of the thoughts, feelings, or states of mind of others, perhaps by means of some degree of vicarious experience of others' feelings or mental states. When we see another human or animal experiencing something positive or negative, we instinctively identify with the other. One must be careful not to confuse empathy with sympathy.
Empathy has to be learned at a young age. Not all humans have empathy: the lacking of all forms of empathy is called psychopathy (see also antisocial personality disorder). Autism and Asperger's syndrome are often falsely associated with empathy disorders, due to developmental differences in the ways emotions are experienced and expressed.
Research in neurology has shown that the same groups of neurons fire in one's brain when one, say, pricks one's finger as when one sees someone else do the same. Hence the reason why one might wince when one sees someone else do this. There are also reports of small infants only a few weeks old who will stick their tongue out at you when you do that to them, giving rise to the theory that empathy is innate in higher mammals.
Closely related concepts are compassion and sympathy. A con-artist may possess and rely on empathy — awareness of others' thoughts and feelings — but fail to experience sympathy, which might prevent him from victimizing others.
It has been speculated that empathy may lie behind the prevalence of the Golden rule, and by extension that it may be an essential part of the cause of moral and social behaviour in human and non-human animals.
The empathy reflex is exploited to a certain extent in all kinds of fiction, thus we may identify deeply with characters appearing in a text or on a screen. It is also possible to identify with a person of the other sex or an animal. Empathy is thought to be a driving psychological force behind the animal rights movement.
Some students of animal behaviour claim that empathy is not restricted to humans as the definition implies. Examples include dolphins saving humans from drowning or from shark attacks, and a multitude of behaviours observed in primates, both in captivity and in the wild. See, for instance, the popular book The Ape and the Sushi Master by Frans de Waal.
Empathy may be painful: seeing the pain of others, especially as broadcasted by mass media can cause temporary or permanent clinical depression, a phenomenon which is sometimes called weltschmerz.
In some works of science fiction and fantasy, empathy is understood to be a paranormal or psychic ability to sense the emotions of others, as opposed to telepathy, which allows one to perceive thoughts as well. A person who has that ability is called an empath.
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv2-09) Empathy
- Empathy: the spirituality of counseling (http://www.draknet.com/proteus/empathy.htm) by Judy Harrow
- Read my mind, an article on empathy and human social interaction (http://www-inst.eecs.berkeley.edu/~cs182/readings/ns/article.html)
- On Empathy, essay on empathy as the outcome of socialization (http://samvak.tripod.com/empathy.html)
- Empathy as a basic brain function (New Scientist, 2004) (http://www.empathogens.com/empathy/animal.html)