Empathy, It Seems, Is Overrated (Jeannette Cooperman, APRIL 18, 2024, Common Reader)

But empathy springs from compassion, I mutter. Compassion without empathy is just sympathy, a sentiment that is easily mawkish, condescending, and deliberately distanced. Or so I have always believed.

Dr. Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist and psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Berlin, disagrees. A world-class expert in empathy and compassion, she scanned the brains of Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, also a neuroscientist, and other monks close to the Dalai Lama. She wanted to see where their brains lit up at moments of compassion and at moments of empathy. She found two entirely different neural pathways.

When empathizing with human tragedy, even wise contemplative monks become overwhelmed. Empathy causes you to feel the pain you are witnessing—in the same part of the brain that the sufferer feels it. Cut off from the meditative practice that buffers reactive emotions, the monks found the experience almost intolerable. But in the next round of scans, they were allowed to return to meditative compassion, which let them feel the pain without withdrawing or shutting down. Soak what you are perceiving with loving kindness, Ricard says, “and in the brain, complete change.”

The problem with pure, unadulterated empathy is that it becomes unbearable. Too much, too often, and you either withdraw or let it paralyze you. Either way, you are useless. Researchers say those who feel compassion are much more likely to help the other person than those who feel empathic distress.