A Little Science Behind Why Empathy is Difficult

For a while now, I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, understand what they are going through, and truly understand. But sometimes it’s hard. There are always people you cannot really empathize with because the way you grew up was nowhere near how they grew up. The things they enjoy sometimes are completely misaligned with what you may like. This is why there are people we like, people we don’t like, and people we don’t really understand at all. In fact, if you could truly empathize with everyone in the entire world, you would fit into some definitions of a god. I’m sure many people have heard of the story in which you are everyone, and everyone is you. When you die, you become reincarnated as another, and eventually, you experience everything everyone has ever gone through, and you are your own god (Logic’s album “Everybody” is based on this idea).

But recently I heard a more scientific explanation of empathy and emotions in general that made intuitive sense and explained exactly why empathy is so hard. I heard it on the NPR podcast series “Invisibilia,” an incredible set of episodes examining the invisible forces that govern how we act and live. It was so interesting to me that I wanted to share it.

The episodes I listened to were about emotions and how we think about them incorrectly. We often think of emotions as completely natural reactions to events occurring around us, but science and data are showing more and more that this is not the case. Emotions like fear, anger, happiness, and sadness are perceptions of four things we experience — pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness. It is our interpretation of these feelings as “emotions” that is not universal, but perceptions based on past experiences. An amazingly similar analogy is eyesight. Our eyes take in the light around us as visual cues, and our brain interprets them based on what we have seen before and tells us what we are seeing. In fact, there have been people who have been blind for their entire lives, but when their eyesight was returned, all they could see was a blur of lights and colors — they had never seen things before, so their brains couldn’t properly interpret the light they were taking in.

Researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are the same. The process by which our brains take in pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness is called interoception, and it is the “concepts” that we have learned through life experiences that govern which emotions we feel. This is why we cannot feel what other people feel. With this explanation in mind, it is obvious why it is hard to empathize when we are in diverse communities with different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. Our concepts are different, so our emotions are different.

Outside of how interesting this is to learn about, I also think it is useful to know. When it’s incredibly hard to get over someone, forget the loss of a loved one, or let go of hatred, it is because the things have gone through have changed our emotional concepts. But sometimes we forget that the present is the past. We are constantly redefining how we feel things. This is the whole idea behind therapy — therapists try to get through to you by redefining your concepts. This is why they delve into your past, your childhood, your family experiences, your past relationships, etc. It’s not easy to redefine your concepts — sometimes it takes years. But it’s possible, and it’s clear that it is possible because we’ve all gotten over emotions before, even really powerful ones. The best solution to controlling negative emotions is to be aware of why they exist — and putting yourself in situations where you can change.