Empaths are more than just sensitive people. They feel the moods and energy of others, they are more affected by sounds, smells and chatter, and they can become emotionally overwhelmed easily. At least that's how it's generally defined.
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For those unfamiliar with the term, an empath can be explained different ways, depending on which discipline is doing the defining. (New age, psychology and science fiction all have their own definitions.)
Dr. Judith Orloff, a board-certified psychiatrist writes: "Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualize feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners."
In science fiction, empaths are defined as: "... a human being or other intelligent organism capable of reading the emotions of others by some form of extrasensory perception. This is distinct from a telepath, which can read thoughts." Probably one of the most well-known examples is Deanna Troi, the empath on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
The new age definition of an empath is similar to both of the above, but it doesn't involve the supernatural and it's less brain-based than the psychological definition: "Being an empath is much more than being highly sensitive and it’s not just limited to emotions. Empaths can perceive physical sensitivities and spiritual urges, as well as just knowing the motivations and intentions of other people. You either are an empath or you aren’t," writes Christel Broeuderlow on The Mind Unleashed.
If you think you might be one, you can take this quiz or simply read through these questions. You can also take additional tests to find out what type of empath you might be. There are also a lot of videos and blog posts on the Web detailing how empaths can better handle stressful situations.
Naturally, there are dissenters, people who claim that there is no such thing as an empath. They believe there are just more or less sensitive people.
The science behind empathy
There are a number of neuroscience studies that have isolated where in the brain empathy and compassion are rooted. A regularly cited 2013 journal article written by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human and Brain Sciences found that when tested, a particular area of subjects' brains — the right supramarginal gyrus, part of the cerebral cortex, located near the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobes — was linked to empathy.
This part of the brain makes the distinction between our own emotions and those of others. Researchers found that when this part of the brain is functioning or when it's bypassed when we have to make very fast decisions, empathy is reduced.
Taking that idea further, other research has looked into the neurobiological roots of psychopathy, because psychopaths lack empathy. Researchers located some differences in the brains of psychopaths, seeing the opposite of what an empath might feel. While empaths are extra-sensitive to others' emotional states, psychopaths are not. In fact, they may even find pleasure in experiencing others' pain.
Swinging back to the more empathetic brain, we should also consider "mirror neurons," which explain why one person responds so quickly to another person's pain — for example, if a friend were to hit his thumb with a hammer.
In one experiment, "... researchers had their participants watch short movie clips of people being touched, while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record their brain activity. The brain scans revealed that the somatosensory cortex, a complex of brain regions processing touch information, was highly active during the movie presentations — although participants were not being touched at all," explains Jakob Limanowski in Scientific American.
It's a shared experience. And because you can learn to become more empathetic, that's further proof that empathy is a neurological and physical phenomenon. So could people who exhibit these behaviors be considered empaths?
There is no neurobiological proof that empaths as defined above exist — yet. But considering neuroscience is still a fairly new field, and noticing how many people report similar phenomena, it's not out of the question that some people may be very good (perhaps too good) at picking up on others' emotional states, cues and energies.