How Does the Brain Feel Empathy?

Ever wondered why certain individuals seem to better emotionally connect with other people, relative to their peers? Or, why certain people are more likely to donate to end world hunger, volunteer at the local animal shelter, and lend a helping hand to a stranger?

Here’s an interesting truth: this has to do with empathy, and there’s a scientific explanation as to why aptitude for it varies. Ongoing research has shown that this natural human feeling of empathy involves a very specific area of the brain, and there are several ways empathy can be altered or enhanced.


Inside the Brain’s Empathy Centers

What part of the brain controls empathy? Try drawing an imaginary 45-degree line backward from your right ear, and you’ll cross the spot under the skull where your right supramarginal gyrus sits. This is one of the brain’s empathy centers that live in the parietal lobe. According to a study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences in 2013, this area is in charge of the following:

  • Corrects for lack of empathy when we show “egocentric” tendencies
  • Reduces empathetic feelings when we have to make quick judgments
  • Helps us determine our own emotions from those of others
  • Serves as the basis for our compassion

More recent studies on the neuroscience of empathy show that the feeling isn’t just attributed to one specific spot in the brain. A system of brain cells called mirror neurons, as well as the supramarginal gyrus, together makes up the somatosensory association cortex. They work together to help us identify the postures and gestures of others, and in turn, feel what others are feeling.

Also responsible for controlling part is the empathy center of the brain called the temporoparietal junction, which helps us think about others, and the inferior frontal gyrus, which (among many functions) lets us think abstractly.


How Empathy Differs Across Individuals

Now that we’ve had a brief brain anatomy lesson, it’s important to note that we’re not all processing empathy equally. For example, if you experience disruptions to the supramarginal gyrus (like a serious brain injury, perhaps), you might project your own emotions on others (rather than understanding that they’re feeling something unique and different from you).

Likewise, if you are among a wealthier class, you may also be less empathetic towards people, according to a 2015 study published in Culture and Brain. Some scientists also believe that you might be more prone to feel empathy towards specific groups – like members of your own race or religion – than others. This underscores the influence of “us versus them” thinking. In studying violence among Israelis and Palestinians, for example, scientists suggest that violence doesn’t necessarily equal lack of empathy. People of a given nationality may show more empathy for those within their group than for those outside it.


Brain Empathy Development: How to Enhance Your Altruistic Behavior

So let’s rewind for a minute. Most of us understand why empathy and altruism together are important for all of humankind. If your sitting on a personal computer, drinking clean water and perhaps enjoying a nice snack while you’re reading this, you’re already better off than millions of people on the planet. If we can collectively understand this, and realize our responsibility to contribute to social good, we’d introduce a powerful ripple effect of positivity and love.

How, then, can we fuel a larger movement of altruistic behavior? For those who feel they are not living up to their full potential in helping those in need, what can be done to boost actions of giving?

There is currently no quick fix or special type of brain surgery for those who have lower tendencies for empathy and compassion. However, on a daily basis, we can make regular choices in effort to improve our levels of empathy and, in a sense, “rewire” our own brains for empathy.

Here are just four simple ways we can further develop our empathy:

  1. Meditation: Being mindful and practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM), which involves sending thoughts of love and kindness to loved ones and all human beings in the world, puts us in the habit of regularly thinking about (and mentally giving to) others.
  2. Intense workouts: According to Christopher Bergland, author of “The Athlete’s Way,” feeling physical and mental pain through tough fitness routines during which we think we are truly suffering can make us more empathetic to those who are actually suffering.
  3. Volunteering & giving back: Practicing prosocial behavior, or voluntarily doing something to benefit another, can get help us increase our tendency to act altruistically.
  4. Meet more people: Here’s the easiest solution. Put down your smartphone and try to speak to more people face to face, particularly to those who have different backgrounds and experiences than you. You’ll expand your range of empathy.

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