The empathetic brain

So, this was pretty interesting.  
I’m something of a dilettante when it comes to serious scientific research. It fascinates me, but I’ve never considered myself clever enough (or honestly, dedicated enough) to learn the nuts and bolts of serious gut science.  Biology was for sure my strength, and Anatomy and Physiology held my interest firmly enough that I considered a career in medical examination for a while.  Then I got to chemistry and was like, “Wull there goes that.  Humanities it is!” 

 

All of that notwithstanding, I am constantly wonderstruck at the ways and methods people devise to learn more about neuroscience.  The secrets locked up in that strange, wiggly, greyish organ sort of boggle the mind (pun!  Oh man).  We certainly know less than we don’t know, and it seems like pretty fertile ground to try and discover more about human behavior and response.  

 

Empathy is one of those things that interests me a lot, because I happen to possess sort of an alarming amount of it.  The feelings of other human beings touch me like I don’t have skin, if I don’t watch myself and pay attention.  Things like anger or sadness, contempt or even an overwhelming abundance of joy (yes, I will ugly cry at your wedding, even if I don’t know you) affect me really deeply, and it doesn’t seem to be something that I can change about myself, even if I wanted to do.  

This can be endearing, I’m told.  Tomthulhu often smiles in a smitten sort of way when I weep at movies, even when (especially when) I’ve seen them thousands of times.  A high empathy response also helps me respond and react to people in ways that help them feel very connected to me.  As a crisis counselor, this was pretty central to my work.  As a friend or lover, it can be pretty useful when things like bonding or comfort are needed.  

It has its downsides, though.  I’m very prone to compassion fatigue, and because I’m naturally highly available to (and highly affected by) a lot of people simultaneously I sometimes have trouble identifying the sources of that fatigue accurately.  In addition, a high empathetic response can make people feel more connected to or intimate with me than I feel with them.  This is especially true for people for whom acts of service are primary received and sent love languages.  Mine is touch (both sent and received) by a fairly wide margin followed by words of affirmation and gifts at a pretty even tie for second place.  I perform acts of service well and happily for lots of reasons, but I often prefer them to be physical tasks.  Let me do your damn dishes.  I will get you ice cream.  Here, I can fold that laundry for you.  May I make you food?  I don’t internalize acts of service as deeply, when I receive them, as things like touch or praise or tokens — unless they are rare for a person to perform.    In relationships where words are the primary intimacy builders, this inequality of closeness-feelings has a tendency to sediment.  People who rely on my empathy are often very close to me, because I take that reliance as the compliment it is.  However, other ways of enacting love are required for me to be able to match them in how close they feel to me.  

People have often said to me, as a way for them to efface experiences I’ve had to make them more palatable, that if I hadn’t suffered so much in life, perhaps I wouldn’t have this capacity for empathy.  This study shows that the possibility exists that my capacity for empathetic response need not be explained as a silver lining to painful or degrading experiences, and might rather be simply a function of the incidents and accidents of my wiggly brain.  While this could be an emergent response to ongoing lifelong stimuli, it could also simply be that my blood vessels supply a lot of blood goo to particular parts of my nog.  This is especially interesting, since I don’t really tend to see my own empathy as that much of a value-laden virtue as a lot of folks seem to do.  It’s pretty inconvenient.  It can lead to a lot (a lot) of inequality in my life, if I am not cautious.  It requires a lot of me, both in terms of choosing it, or choosing to raise my threshold for my own well-being.  It requires a lot of maintenance to well, maintain.  It also attracts unhealthy people, at times.  It means certain kinds of media are not “safe” feeling for me.  

I’ve been trained to unlearn identifying with the pain or anger of others.  I no longer make it my own, because hey, not helpful.  But I don’t know what my capacity is when it comes to my ability to control sharing in the feelings of others, taking them seriously, and feeling them alongside others.  

It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

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The empathetic brain

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