September 1, 2014

Empathy: A Hard Look at a Touchy-Feely Subject

A psychologist first coined the word “empathy” in 1909 as a translation of the German Einfühlung, or “feeling into.” But these days, if you hear the term, it’s probably from a self-help book or a wellness blog hailing it as the key to corporate success, personal fulfillment, or geopolitical harmony. What was once the realm of scientists attempting to understand the way our minds operate has become a catchall for life stylists and New Age feel-goodery. Despite the cloud of soft information on the subject, many researchers are still pursuing empathy from a scientific or clinical point of view. The concept gives us a framework for how chemicals in the brain, like oxytocin, work, and understanding it can help us treat people who are on the autism spectrum as well as those who suffer from psychopathic disorders.  

The basic ability to understand other people’s emotions and feel them ourselves may be an essential part of what makes us human. It’s the glue that binds us to friends and family and the signal that alerts us to a stranger’s suffering. But is there a real basis for thinking that empathy can help us tackle complex challenges like poverty, prejudice, and political extremism? Is the power of empathy overhyped? In this series, GOOD takes a hard look at a touchy-feely topic.

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Empathy: A Hard Look at a Touchy-Feely Subject