Empathy 2005-10-16

What is empathy?

For me, this is a very difficult question in some ways.

I am what most people would describe as extremely analytical. I consider intelligence to be primarily the ability to see patterns, integrate them into one's existing network of beliefs and etc., and immediately apply the effects of that integration. That is what I'm good at. It's probably obvious in the way I write. (E.g., this is my "normal" speaking register.)

The flaw that many people who share this trait fall into is excessive reductionism: failing to see the forest for the trees. That is, if you break something down into its component parts and analyze them separately, while you gain a lot of understanding, it will be incomplete unless you also have a concept of the whole, itself.

The way I address this weakness - and feel that I overcome it (hubris though this may be) - is by adopting as many perspectives as I can. So when I describe Empathy, as when I describe any other high-level concept, I will sometimes talk in its own terms - 'energy' and the like - and sometimes in much more mundane ones, of motor neurons and neurotransmitters. I don't consider these to be in any way incompatible whatsoever, and that's an important point to bear in mind to understand my perspective (though I suppose that word should be plural).

Empathy to me is the qualitative experience of perceiving others' emotions, energy, and a whole host of related matters - including ones purely internal to myself. What differentiates it with small-e empathy is solely that: the qualia. Every normal person (aside from clinical psychopaths) experiences empathy; however, as best I can understand it, the normal experience of it is detached in a way, or at most it insipires similar feelings (from memories); it isn't directly perceived. (I'll use small-e from here on for convenience, but will be referring to the qualitative kind.)

This means that a description of "what it's like" is necessarily very idiosyncratic - though many empaths I've spoken to seem to be rather alike in them (an interesting point in itself; see below). As far as I can tell, there is no way to distinguish the mundane and the non-mundane kinds in a "scientific" manner, except by self-report and (potentially?) by fMRI.

What is Empathy?

I'm not sure, honestly. I do not, per se, "believe in" any particular theory of energy (e.g. again shiatsu; kundalini; etc), though I will take them as useful descriptive frameworks.

I think a large part of it is a function of neural wiring. As I've described elsewhere, the basic idea is that what you perceive (through mundane senses) is turned into "simulations" in your mind. In physical terms, this means that a subset of your motor neuron system fires almost identically when you see someone perform an action (like moving their arm a certain way) as when you do, and that this function includes your perception of intent (that is the kind of planning activity that occurs in the pre-frontal cortex). My belief - this hasn't been examined in the literature, that I'm aware of - is that you the number, and detail, of simulations that you create is a function of wiring and attention. These "mirroring" kinds of activity set up the potential - when linked through the somatosensory system - for experiencing it.

One example of a simpler (and mundane) version of this is the process of imagination. E.g.: picture yourself walking into a room. You see a table with a cup of tea on it. You walk up to it, reach out your right hand to grab the cup, and take a sip.

The experience you had while / during reading that prompt - a sort of attenuated version of the real thing - is basically what I consider to be a weaker version of empathy. By this theory, empaths are different only in that they have stronger links here, and that they may be synaesthetic ones - that is, they get translated to "color" (and hence "auras"), or etc.

This is an empirical hypothesis, FWIW; it ought to be testable by taking empaths vs. non-empaths (according to self-report of experience aimed specifically at the qualia, not the mundane empathy scales [e.g. do you cry at movies? {I don't}]), and exposing them to a range of stimuli while in an fMRI machine (or any functional imaging; e.g. PET or MEG). The choice of these would be crucial - e.g., perhaps, comparing their reaction of seeing someone displaying emotion on a video vs. seeing the real thing (from a distance of a couple feet); etc. I would predict that the empaths have significantly different activity in their somatosensory cortex (Brodmann areas 1-3), potentially in the prefrontal cortex, in the pathways conecting these to the motor and visual cortices, and perhaps in Wernicke's area as well. For those who synaesthese, it would correspond to their mode of synaesthesia. Obviously, though, this would be somewhat difficult to design well - there are several methodological pitfalls, among other things - but it would be extremely interesting. Considering the cost of fMRI time, though, and the esoteric nature of this, it seems unlikely that anyone with the access and the reputation to be able to do this would also have the desire and the balls.

While this concept of empathy can explain the perception of others' emotions in an internal way - including crowdsickness (too many simulations, producing confused / noisy somatosensory effect) etc, it doesn't offer an understanding of 'energy'. (E.g.: Why would you be able to feel - differentially - some sensation if I channel into your throat in a stimulating vs. a calming way, with your eyes closed etc?) It can explain some kinds of empathy-over-distance - so long as there is some sort of interaction on which you can be forming a simulation / model (e.g. pattern recognition off of the pace and word selection in an IM conversation) - but not otherwise.

Most importantly, it offers no account of why you, as a conscious entity, can control it - either as the sensing or sensed party. I consider this part of the general mind-body / consciousness problem, though - which is, at present, the most well-known unsolved problem of neuroscience. Bluntly put, I haven't seen any credible research on what exactly "will" is, how it functions, etc.

I have no answers to either of these holes, and am comfortable with that. I work with what I have.

As a statement of faith, I will say that I think neuroscience will someday be able to offer an explanation, but that its explanation will be at a different level of description. Just like you can describe the properties of fluids by reference to atomic chemistry, but not 'wetness' itself; that is, you lose something when you try to exclusively talk at the higher-level or the lower-level description alone. Time will tell, on this one.

What it feels like:

Let me preface this by saying that I am not synaesthetic at all, so far as I can tell. I do not "see" auras, or literally "taste" things; all of the langauge I use here is metaphorical, since no language I know contains words that are sufficient. The sensation itself is a sort of sixth sense (though I wince at the term); the closest analogue sensation is touch.

One of the frustrating things, in my experience, is just this: I have no easy way to symbolize what I feel, or to easily distinguish sensations (e.g. "that was blue, not red"). What I do is try to compare to what I already know - that is, my memories (again, not symbolically encoded and therefore much more volatile than they would be otherwise) of previous experiences and what they correlated to, and see if I can find a close match. That, and draw upon what I "know" - that is, what (when I focus my attention on what/who I'm trying to read) comes to my mind as little chunks of understanding. This latter is also a frustrating process; they are hard to analyze (since their subcomponents are nonsymbolic), and tend to be vague. They feel, almost always, like hesitant guesses. The remarkable thing is that I'm frequently right, if I try to confirm my reading.

The other thing is that I do not readily distinguish empathy from other energy-sensation - like what I get from doing shiatsu, or some kinds of meditation, or good aikido. That is, they are the same kind of sensation - like both being "visual experiences" - not that they are the same sensation.

So, a rundown:

Someone channeling 'into' me - by 'reiki' or simple intent - is a warm tingle, ranging from mild to all-encompassing. It's very similar to the pleasant sort of "hot flush" experienced with some orgasms, suffusing hot drinks, or a warm-but-not-hot fireplace. I have felt very definite onset/offset of this, even with my eyes closed, and even when I was not anticipating someone doing it at all (e.g. they walk up behind me at a party). I'm not sure what changes the intensity of the sensation. Also, this will often induce my catlike 'bask in sun' feeling / affect; it's much like trying to get closer to the source of this warmth, or draw it in. An extremely pleasant sensation, so long as I know the other person isn't being harmed by the expenditure. It usually radiates out from where they're making contact - mostly but not exclusively along the meridian lines as e.g. described in shiatsu.

Sometimes, it comes tinged with some particular 'flavor' - of the person themselves, of the intent behind it, or just a different taste.

Holding a 'ball' or 'cycling' energy is usually a pulsing sensation. I usually do it with my hands, though I can do it with my full body as well (along the central meridian and two of the lines down the arm). There's usually a very definite pattern; most common is as a counterclockwise circle, parallel to my body and between my cupping (but not touching) hands.

There's also a rhythm to it. One of the most common starts at the left hand, quickly to the right on one, then more slowly to the left on two, three, lingering a little on both of the endpoints. The other is more of a steady pulse, sometimes back-and-forth and sometimes simultaneous, with no definite movement pattern.

These sensations usually are in my hands, though it is difficult to actually 'locate' them; it is similar to seeing something in front of you - the concept of associating that with a location on your body is not really applicable - but there is no sight involved, only sensation. Also, I don't know if this is a "phyiscal" sensation per se, though it is more acute when my hands are free, and when I synchronize my breathing cycle to the beat pattern. I don't know of anything one can do physically to replicate this sensation; the closest is the dull throb of a leg that's 'fallen asleep', but without the sharpness, dullness, or pain. This is a neutral sensation - not 'good' or 'bad' really - but an interesting one.

Doing this with one hand is somewhat similar, though usually weaker; doing it with the whole body is a rather remarkable sensation, with the same patterns and beats, but throughout; the motion usually is from the neck, along the front, around, pause beat at the back of the pelvis, upwards along the spine, and double-pause again at the top. (The pauses don't mean the rhythm stops, but rather it lingers a bit in its motion.) Combined with analagous breathing, this invokes a trance state very quickly.

Channeling energy into/at others is, likewise, a very difficult thing to describe. I usually start with calling some (making a 'ball' as above) until I can feel it strongly. I then direct my attention, and my hand, towards the place I want the 'energy' to go. At first contact, the sensation reduces considerably and the pattern of it tends to get thrown off for a bit; it takes anywhere from a couple seconds to a couple minutes of continuous contact to get it back to its previous strength.

This combines with my perception of others' energy. Crudely put, I have a "tactile" feel of it; it tends to be readily perceptible within anywhere from a couple feet to an inch, though this seems to vary very widely between people. Within a particular person, this distance doesn't change much unless they are purposely doing things to change it - like shielding or torching. I can often feel little 'wells' in this field - places where it dips in towards the body like a little whirlpool - and these generally correspond to tsubo locations (again, as they would be described in shiatsu). Other than that, it gets a bit 'denser' the closer I get to skin, doesn't seem to be impaired by thin clothing, and is a distinct sensation from actual body heat per se. It's only noticable if I pay attention; the simple physical sensations of literal touch, proprioception, wind, etc., can be a lot louder otherwise.

I've managed to create quite a number of interesting effects in others by doing this. Everything from calming, exciting (rather like an instant shot of caffeine), vision-inducing, fire, etc. E.g., I've used it to keep people awake all night without being particularly tired (using a rapid-cycling strong 'jolt' between the eyes, slightly above the dip at the top of the nose); caused visual experiences described as everything from "a green flower" to "blue swirly stuff" (which go away when I stop and come back when I resume); created the sensation of being covered by a warm cloak; etc. It is hard for me to predict exactly what the sensation will be, and I don't get the synaesthetic ones myself - though I do perceive the more general effects. Generally, though, it goes with what I was intending - and I make a practice of asking the recipient what the effect was before saying anything about what I "did" or what my intent was.

Different "tastes" of people:

I have three levels of scanning: what I pick up regardless; what I pick up if I am intentionally "looking around" (as it were); and what I pick up if I am directly focused on one individual and very intently trying to see into them.

First off, I've found that I can usually readily identify people who are "abnormal" on the esoteric levels. There is of course a relativity to this; ambient scan doesn't pick up as much as an intentional, which in turn isn't as detailed as a full scan. So often, I won't notice people who are relatively lowkey (either because they're not very radiant, or what they have is subtle, or they're intentionally gray-ing themselves at some level) unless something makes me stop and look. (Of course, this suffers some problems of verification - since I'm not able to survey an entire crowd to see if I missed any, e.g.)

One way to describe this is as a set of axes. Multidimensional, of course, and as always this is an inexact comparison. Most people are not at the extremes, and most of these axes / traits are overlappable.

Throughout, "Normal(s)" refers to the vast majority of people. Not actively aware of the subtle things, nor manipulating / using / seeing them, though they may well have a worldview that allows for the existence thereof. This is not intended as a pejorative at all.

These are not permanent descriptions, though they usually will remain relatively constant over the short term (a month or so). I have not *seen* any Normals switch to Aware (or vice versa), but I see no reason why this shouldn't happen. I have seen people who I perceived as able-to-be-Aware, but didn't have the experience of being so, switch to having it.


Some people are very very easy to read (the "open book" cliché); others are not, for various reasons (some of the distinctions are subtle):

Opaque: People, usually Normals, who - while they do appear on radar as "existant" - are completely unreadable. Not that they don't have emotions, or that those are being *hidden*, just that they aren't very visible. Usually passively so, and also usually completely unaware of energetics.

Shielded: Usually Aware folk, this is an active or passive form of screening between inner and outer worlds. It's noticable as a barrier of sorts; somewhat like seeing a veil, knowing and seeing the shadows of what's behind it, but not being able to discern what those things are. Sometimes comes with a (possibly) seperate surface 'shell' that *is* readable, but usually scans as "false" somehow. Sometimes shields are selectively permeable - actively, or as "filters", or only to a certain "depth". I call shields that are completely impermeable (usually in both directions) "walls". Those taste slightly different; less resilient, less alive, more painful. More of a dull sheen in the eyes.

Shells / Onioning: A second personality - usually not very far removed from the inner one, but that's very difficult to tell - that scans normally as real and normal, but that deep scan flags as disturbing / fake. I only use this to refer to the strong types, where the inner-personality is very quiet or blankly walled; the more mundane sort is usually relatively see-through.

Blank: Something I've only encountered very rarely. These people don't show up on radar, nor do they show up on any level of scans. Not as in "I don't see anything", but as in "there is nothing to see". I find this sensation to be very, very disturbing. This is sometimes "stealth" - not noticing something is amiss - but sometimes shows up as a distinct blankness on my radar (as it were).


My assessment of how Aware the other person is. This is a particularly difficult one to be certain of, but I have yet to be wrong for those I tagged strongly and subsequently discussed it with (in an open, non-leading way).

Unaware: Normals. Have no ongoing conscious experiences of the subtle things. May well be operating at a subconscious level, however, and this is not incompatible with having surprisingly high-level shielding etc. May or may not believe in energetics / empathy / etc. Generally oblivious even to direct action taken upon them, though sometimes they'll feel associated physical sensations. Won't usually connect those to the energetics unless it's extremely direct / obvious / explicit, and even then it's tenuous.

Aware: People who can sense energy at some level. Damn hard to tell how well, or how much passive/active control they have over it. The sensation is somewhat like seeing something "more" than Normal; perhaps somewhat analagous to walking on a normally barren plain, and meeting another human (though that's a very tenuous analogy and not nearly so concrete). The difference between this and Unaware is extremely gray and mutable; often there are some things of which someone is more aware than others.

Empath: People "like me". This is a very distinct and usually relatively "loud" sensation, though shields and similar things can mute it. A sort of... resonance; a certain light of life in the eyes, a more distinct / flavorful taste on the normal scanning levels. Usually takes a couple minutes to pick out, but that varies widely depending on how strong they are and how distracted / awake I'm feeling. Strong ones are a rare but very pleasant feeling to be around, though can have the sometimes-unfortunate effect of amplifying / recursing emotions more than normal, which can get ugly when icky ones enter the loop.

Shiny: People who aren't necessarily empaths, but are more than "simply" Aware. Sometimes have a distinct flavor, but this can be both a difference of degree and of type. Invariably, however, they're very Interesting folk. ;-)

Projection / Emanation

This is somewhat akin to an active counterpart to Legibility. Usually correlates to it - strong in this goes with easily legible - but not always.

One main distinction is that while legibility is something that is "initated" at my end, these are intiated at theirs. Whether I choose to let it in or not is of course up to me, but the default is 'yes'; it takes specific effort to block / ground / shield / etc to avoid the effects.

Torch: Constantly or otherwise, these folk radiate energy. The flavor ranges widely; everything from honeyfire to a sunny sort of warmth/glow to a tingly bubbly giddiness. Yummy yummy yummy! Tend to make me feel pleasantly cuddly / warm / catlike / drunk, and usually have a fairly distinct physical 'range of effect'. Also make for wonderful friends. Usually fairly open and friendly people in the normal ways, but sometimes not. Not even always 'nice people', though their surface personalities usually are.

Cold / Icky: Very unpleasant / repressive. I've occasionally gotten regularly, repeatably, and discretely physically sick in the presence of particularly icky-emmanating people. I try to avoid these people if at all possible. Again, the particular flavor of it varies considerably, and is not the same as emotion-pickup per se. Sometimes these people are also energy *drains* - the reverse of a torch. And no, that's not the same as a psivamp. Sometimes this happens without me noticing until things get bad, but usually it's a fairly palpable feeling of constant assault, again with the same distinct 'range of effect'. I had one massage teacher who was like this; that was an extremely unpleasant class, and I had to leave in the middle to avoid throwing up or going into spasms several times, only to get completely better within minutes of being away; this didn't happen in the same room with the same people and same subject with a different teacher. (Side note: I don't ever get crowdsick, and am fairly good at maintaining normal shielding and active grounding. Nevertheless...)

Projective: Tend to affect Normals in the same way that most Normals affect some empaths - they project their own emotions onto people / things around them. Obviously, the desirability of this will vary; this occurs in all sorts of personalities and levels of awareness. They sometimes affect me, but usually only show up as stronger-emotioned. (Again, I very rarely have the problem of others' emotions overriding mine; it's pretty well seperated.)

Gravity: Hard to notice; pretty subtle. People who have a ... pull to them. Usually it's selective and not on all the time, sometimes intentional / active, and often they're unaware of their doing this. (I've exerted a fair amount on occasion, and usually was only aware of it afterwards, upon reflection, or when someone reminded me.)


Very rare. Some folk are just plain Different. *shrug* Don't claim anything about them, except that they don't fit well into any of the above and are generally noticable but uncomprehensible. Hard to explain how or why they're different, and it's not always obvious; closest analogy would be reading a book in a language you don't know. Sometimes it's a related language, but sometimes it's just completely foreign. Probably means *something*, but I can't tell what. ;-)

Otherkin: I'll mention this because it is one that I have noticed on very rare occasions, and is accompanied by pretty vivid self-reports. I do not, personally, believe in Otherkin as such, but I do strongly believe in the effect of one's symbolset on oneself and the perception one gives. I can approximately identify what sort of Other they are, but only very crudely. They are, in any case, interesting people with an often very interesting subjective experience - and I don't consider my beliefs to have anything to do with the reality of that.

This is by no means comprehensive, and doesn't cover the normal variety within the base-level empathic pickup. (Which, of course, varies as much as people have emotions, which is a helluvalot.) It's more a general list of *types* of people.

And again I have to very strongly clause this with the fact that while these "definitions" seem discrete and static, the reality is not. Treat them as apices - prototypical cases, as it were. Most people are some combination, and change by situation.