Updated: Sep 5
I counseled veterinary medical students for over 6 years. They are incredibly bright, driven, and caring. They’d come to see me for a variety of things; managing anxiety, relationship issues, depressive symptoms. They’d talk about the struggle of the rigorous program, how they were tired of learning in-class and wanted to be “with a patient”. What I learned working with this population was that many were deeply empathic. And even though they were very science-oriented, they tended to be deeply caring, deeply feeling people.
To a few of them, I’d mention that they may be empaths, outlining what that meant and how it impacted their lives. They’d look at me like they’d seen a ghost,” that sounds just like me.” Because they are science oriented, I dove deep into the research to communicate and normalize what they were going through.
There is a flurry of information out there on empaths and highly sensitive people (HSP). When you type “empath” into google you will find topics that address the traits of both; the relationship between empaths and narcissists, survival guides for being an empath, and health issues related to being a highly sensitive person.
So, what does the science say about being an empath? Can we quantify it? Measure it? Study it? Can we understand its components on a more granular level?
The research is still relatively new – within the last 10 years – and it is compelling. First, before we dig into the research, let’s operationally define the term “empath”. Empath comes from the word empathy, which is an emotion or state of being that allows a person to understand and connect to another person. An empath is someone who feels more empathy than the average person.
Empaths have an increased ability to recognize another person’s emotions, identify those emotions earlier, and rate emotions as being more intense. Empaths have a profound ability to sense others’ internal experience and mimic it through postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions. This mimicking process is a brain relay mechanism through mirror neurons. MRI scans of highly empathic individuals show that regions in the person’s brain neural circuitry light up more intensely, which is why many empaths say they “feel” other people – their brain is acting as if they, themselves, are actually feeling the emotion even though it’s someone else experiencing the emotion.
Why should we care about mirror neurons? Well, this is the mechanism that is closely related to emotional contagion; the ability to pick up on a person or persons in distress. If an empath is visiting a hospital, classroom, grocery story, concert, or any other public space, they have a unique ability to pick up on the overall “vibe” or collective emotional experience.
The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is an important topic of the conversation too. Dopamine, commonly known as the “reward system”, floods the body and brain with the pleasure response. Research shows that introverted empaths have a higher sensitivity to dopamine, which means they need less dopamine to get the same or similar “feel good” results than most people. This means that they need fewer interactions with people and get fueled by shorter, quality interactions with others.
So what? If you identify as an empath, this information can help you understand that you have a heightened sense. It doesn’t make you a weird, or delicate, or “too sensitive”. I know society tries to tell us we are, but this sense is your gift. If you have yet to fully embrace this part of you, let’s connect and figure out how to maximize this superpower!
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