The Science Behind Empathy And Empaths

As a psychiatrist and an empath, I am fascinated by how the phenomenon of empathy works. I feel passionately that empathy is the medicine the world needs right now.

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Empathy is when we reach our hearts out to others and put ourselves in their shoes. However, being an empath goes even farther. Like many of my patients and myself, empaths are people who’re high on the empathic spectrum and actually feel what is happening in others in their own bodies. As a result, empaths can have incredible compassion for people–but they often get exhausted from feeling “too much” unless they develop strategies to safeguard their sensitivities and develop healthy boundaries.

In my book, “The Empath’s Survival Guide” I discuss the following intriguing scientific explanations of empathy and empaths. These will help us more deeply understand the power of empathy so we can utilize and honor it in our lives.

1. The Mirror Neuron System 

Researchers have discovered a specialized group of brain cells that are responsible for compassion. These cells enable everyone to mirror emotions, to share another person’s pain, fear, or joy. Because empaths are thought to have hyper-responsive mirror neurons, we deeply resonate with other people’s feelings. How does this occur? Mirror neurons are triggered by outside events. For example, our spouse gets hurt, we feel hurt too. Our child is crying; we feel sad too. Our friend is happy; we feel happy too. In contrast, psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists are thought to have what science calls “empathy deficient disorders.” This means they lack the ability to feel empathy like other people do, which may be caused by an under-active mirror neuron system. We must beware of these people because they are incapable of unconditional love. 


2. Electromagnetic Fields 

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The second finding is based on the fact that both the brain and the heart generate electromagnetic fields. According to the HeartMath Institute, these fields transmit information about people’s thoughts and emotions. Empaths may be particularly sensitive to this input and tend to become overwhelmed by it. Similarly, we often have stronger physical and emotional responses to changes in the electromagnetic fields of the earth and sun. Empaths know well that what happens to the earth and sun affects our state of mind and energy. Similarly, we often have stronger physical and emotional responses to changes in the electromagnetic fields of the earth and sun. Empaths know well that what happens to the earth and sun affects our state of mind and energy. 


3. Emotional Contagion 

The third finding which enhances our understanding of empaths is the phenomena of emotional contagion. Research has shown that many people pick up the emotions of those around them. For instance, one crying infant will set off a wave of crying in a hospital ward. Or one person loudly expressing anxiety in the workplace can spread it to other workers. People commonly catch other people’s feelings in groups. A recent New York Times article stated that this ability to synchronize moods with others is crucial for good relationships. What is the lesson for empaths? To choose positive people in our lives so we’re not brought down by negativity. Or, if, say a friend is going through a hard time, take special precautions to ground and center yourself. These are important strategies you’ll learn in this book.


4. Increased Dopamine Sensitivity 

The fourth finding involves dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons and is associated with the pleasure response. Research has shown that introverted empaths tend to have a higher sensitivity to dopamine than extroverts. Basically, they need less dopamine to feel happy. That could explain why they are more content with alone time, reading, and meditation and need less external stimulation from parties and other large social gatherings. In contrast, extroverts crave the dopamine rush from lively events. In fact, they can’t get enough of it. 


5. Synesthesia 

The fifth finding, which I find particularly compelling, is the extraordinary state called “mirror-touch synesthesia.” Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two different senses are paired in the brain. For instance, you see colors when you hear a piece of music or you taste words. Famous synesthetics include Isaac Newton, Billy Joel, and violinist Itzhak Perlman. However, with mirror-touch synesthesia, people can actually feel the emotions and sensations of others in their own bodies as if these were their own. This is a wonderful neurological explanation of an empath’s experience.  
The Dali Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious human quality.”  During these stressful times, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Even so, empathy is the quality that will get us through. It will enable us to respect one another, even if we disagree. Empathy doesn’t make you a sentimental softy without discernment. It allows you to keep your heart open to foster tolerance and understanding. It might not always be effective in getting through to people and creating peace but I think it’s the best chance we have.  

(Adapted from The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People by Judith Orloff, MD, which is a guidebook for empaths and all caring people who want to keep their hearts open in an often-insensitive world.)


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Dr. Judith Orloff
Judith Orloff, MD is the New York Times best-selling author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People. Her new book Thriving as an Empath offers daily self-care tools for sensitive people along with its companion The Empath’s Empowerment Journal. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty. She synthesizes the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff also specializes in treating highly sensitive, empathic people in her private practice. Dr. Orloff’s work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, Oprah Magazine, the New York Times. Dr. Orloff has spoken at Google-LA and has a popular TEDX talk. Her other books are Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People, The Empowered Empath’s Journal, Emotional Freedom and Guide to Intuitive Healing. Explore more information about her Empath Support Online course and speaking schedule on


  1. Learning I was an Empath saved my life. I have always known I was different from other people, but I never understood why. like other Empath’s I was constantly put down, your too sensitive, get over it, why do you feel like that all the time? Every negative comment you can think of. Which just reinforced my belief there was something “wrong” with me. After I found The 30 traits of an Empath online at age 50, my life changed overnight. I am now 58 and have fully educated myself on the meaning of being an empath and everything changed for the better in my life. I swear for 50 years I was living in the Dark Night of the Soul and bam!! I woke up!! I know not everyone will experience the miracle I have, but i believe it’s possible. My depression? Gone. Low Self Esteem. Gone. cognitive dissonance. Gone. Don’t get me wrong it was very hard, gut wrenching work I went through for 8 years but education is key to understanding I believe. Now I help others in a support group I run!! I really believed because of society’s opinion of me as being weak my whole life had such a terrible effect on me. And the same for many other Empath’s I know. Until society teaches that it is ok to have emotions and be a sensity human being, we are in deep trouble, because we are the healers of the world, we are here for a unique reason, each one of has our girt’s. Empower yourself as an Empath it is so worth the journey. Thank You Judith Orloff you were 1 of my teachers. Not only did I heal from past issues I also found my life purpose!!

  2. Hi Judith,

    It was the title of your article that drew me to read it. I, too, am a psychotherapist, and I was thrilled to read your work involving scientific information such as synesthesia, mirror neurons, etc. The institute of Heart Math has changed so much about the way we look at emotion. So has neurobiology. Empaths like you and I, who are also involved in the therapeutic world, have a strong responsibility to bring the two worlds of intuition and science together. It was a pleasure reading the way you put your study, your thoughts, and yourself together in one big picture: this beautiful article. Thank you so much, Paige Bartholomew.

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