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Friday, October 30, 2015

A Short History of Empathy

By Susan Lanzoni
The Atlantic
Originally published October 15, 2015

Here is an excerpt:

In the past few decades, interest in empathy has spread beyond psychology to primatology and neuroscience. In the 1990s, neuroscientists studying monkeys discovered mirror neurons, cells in the animals’ brains that fired not only when a monkey moved, but also when the monkey saw another one make the same movement. The discovery of mirror neurons spurred a wave of research into empathy and brain activity that quickly extended to humans as well. Other recent studies have further widened empathy’s reach into fields like economics and literature, finding that wealth disparities weaken empathic response and that reading fiction can improve it.

But as Kristof and Bloom illustrate, there is still some cultural debate about what empathy means today. And in the psychology community, the answers are no more clear-cut. Critics of the mirror-neuron theory, for example, question not only the location of these neurons in the human brain, but whether simulation of another’s gestures is a good description of empathy in the first place. The social psychologist C. Daniel Batson, who has researched empathy for decades, argues that the term can now refer to eight different concepts: knowing another’s thoughts and feelings; imagining another’s thoughts and feelings; adopting the posture of another; actually feeling as another does; imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; feeling distress at another’s suffering; feeling for another’s suffering, sometimes called pity or compassion; and projecting oneself into another’s situation.

The entire article is here.