Interacting with other people can be a source of great support or great stress. Empathy – the ability to understand what another person is experiencing from their perspective – is an important factor in enabling supportive and functional social interactions. One of the key indicators of narcissistic personality disorder is a lack of ability to empathise for others.
(Note we’re talking about empathy, not sympathy here – see this footnote on the difference – because we never like to miss the chance for a bit of grammatical pedantry¹).
Given its importance, unsurprisingly there are many theories on the how, why and where of empathy. However, also unsurprisingly, much is unknown.
The discovery in the 1980s of “mirror neurons” in macaque monkeys has lead to some very interesting research in the field of neuroscience which could give some insight.²
To put it in a misleadingly simple way (and it really is the complete opposite of simple in real life) a neuron is a cell which sends information between your brain/nervous system and the rest of your body to control what you do. There are different neurons in different areas of the brain for different actions and responses. A neuron is “firing” when it is being active and processing information.
A motor neuron will fire when someone does something. For example, when I pick up a glass a message will be sent to my neurons. The neurons which control touch and movement will swing into action – “fire” – and tell my hand and arm what it needs to do to pick up the glass.
The reason why mirror neurons are so exciting is that they fire in someone who is simply looking at someone else who is doing something. In the original monkey experiments they found that the same neurons fired when the monkey picked up some food as when it saw a person picking up food.
Scientists are still investigating how this works with people. A number of scientists argue that in people mirror neurons work like this to create empathy³ – i.e. if you see someone feel happy or disgusted, your mirror neurons fire and then you feel happy or disgusted (in the same way as if you feel happy or disgusted because of something that happened to you).
At the moment there’s still lots to be discovered and debated. But it seems promising that mirror neurons could give some real opportunities for new treatments for mental health issues – from autism to trauma recovery. Are mirror neurons at play in meditations which cultivate compassion and empathy?
It’s a useful reminder that our mental health doesn’t happen in isolation and the people that we are surrounded with really can have an impact on our own mood and how we feel.
It’s not as simple as deciding to only hang out with people who are happy and leaving the room as soon as anyone’s smile starts to droop. Empathy for sad as well as positive feelings is important to build strong relationships. But if you are spending a lot time surrounded by people who are feeling negative emotions (a stressed out office environment springs to mind…) simply being around them could be having more of an impact on your own stress levels than you realise.
If you are feeling stressed, it can be helpful to take some time to consciously consider who you spend time with and how that may impact on how you feel. Are there changes that you could make to spend less time in that environment, or if you can’t how can you change the way you respond to the situation?
If you would like support to consciously consider what factors could be contributing to your mental health and stress levels and what changes you could make we would be delighted to support to you to do this. Click here to see the services that we can help you with. Please reach out and call us on 0798 480 5351 or email us at email@example.com. We have consulting rooms in Brighton and London and consult online to anywhere in the world.
Nicole Shinnick is the Founder, Managing Director and a Lead Consultant at Bilantia. She is a Certified Mindfulness Based Awareness Coach and currently completing a Master of Science, Psychology and Neuroscience of Mental Health at King’s College London.