Empathy is a rather faint concept. Scientists do not agree what it exactly involves and they haven’t succeeded yet to define it clearly. For this blog that’s not important. Let’s say that empathy is feeling what someone else feels; that it is a kind of feeling that makes that one understands and feels the emotions of another person, because one imagines the situation he or she is in. Then one gets the same emotion as the other, although usually in a lesser degree. One sees that the other is sad or just happy, which makes that you feel sad or happy as well. It’s the same for other feelings or emotions, like pain, regret, fear, anger and so on. It can even work that way that only seeing a happy or sad person makes you becoming happy or sad. Everybody has such experiences, but how does it work?
Empathy has been studied at least since the end of the nineteenth century but the discovery of so-called mirror neurons in the brain some hundred years later has thrown a new light on it. Mirror neurons are a kind of neurons that become activated, when someone sees another person performing an action. However, they have also another function, for mirror neurons become also activated when you yourself perform an action. So mirror neurons both help recognize actions and they are motor neurons in the sense that they play a role in moving your muscles for performing the same actions. They have a double function. Even more, when you see somebody performing an action, also then they make that you start moving the related muscles. Often this happens unconsciously and you don’t notice it and you keep sitting in your chair. But who hasn’t experienced being present at a concert and seeing the drummer tapping his foot and starting to tap your own foot? Or you see persons dancing in the street and you stop to watch them and you start to move as well or even joins them? Mirror neurons make that you tend to copy and simulate the behaviour of other persons; openly or within yourself.
Mirror neurons play an important part in learning but also in recognizing emotions. When you see an emotion on the face of another person, your mirror neurons register the emotion and make that you start copying it. When you see that someone is happy, you get a feeling of being happy, and if she smiles or laughs, you start to smile or laugh, too. If you see that someone is sad you also tend to feel sad, and maybe you start to cry with him or her. Also your face expresses the emotion concerned.
It’s interesting that this process doesn’t work only in one direction. It doesn’t work only from emotion to movement but also from movement to emotion. For instance, make a smile and immediately you tend to feel better; suppress smiles where you are supposed to be serious and you’ll feel so. In other words, there is relation of interdependence between what you see being done, what you do in relation to what you see then and to what you feel.
It’s just a hypothesis but I think that all this has a consequence for the relation between empathy and sex. In most cultures women are free to express their emotions and feelings, at least to a large extent, while men are supposed to keep them in check and not to show them too much. However, suppressing showing your emotions means suppressing the movements of the muscles related to these emotions. But if you suppress the movements of the muscles that are related to certain emotions you tend to suppress the emotions as such as well. If you don’t laugh you feel less cheerful than when you do, and if you don’t cry you feel less sorrow than when you do cry. Anyway, this is so compared to persons in the same circumstances who do perform all these physical expressions of their feelings.
Above I described empathy as feeling what someone else feels. As we just have seen, it belongs to having a certain feeling that you move your muscles in the right way. Basically it is an automatic process but you can steer it and just that’s what you do when you suppress to start crying when you see someone else crying; or when you try to suppress that your face becomes sad when you see someone in sorrow; and the same for happiness and for other emotions. However, when you suppress the physical expression of an emotion you suppress the related feeling as well, like, for instance, the empathy you actually feel for someone, if something has happened to that person. And since in most cultures men are allowed not to show their emotions as much as women can, the upshot is that men feel less empathy than women do in the same circumstances.