Dr Judith Orloff's Blog

The New Science of Empathy and Empaths

Judith Orloff - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Adapted from Dr. Judith Orloff's ” The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People”

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.

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
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.)


Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. 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 empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice. Dr. Orloff’s work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, the Oprah Magazine and USA Today. She is a New York Times best-selling author of Emotional Freedom, The Power of Surrender, Second Sight, Positive Energy, and Guide to Intuitive Healing. Connect with Judith on  Facebook and  Twitter. To learn more about empaths and her free empath support newsletter as well as Dr. Orloff's books and workshop schedule, visit her website.

K commented on 01-Mar-2017 07:29 PM
As usual, you are spot on Judith! Excellent article, thank you for writing/sharing it.

3. Emotional Contagion; had a recent experience with a group of people in a mourning situation whose mirror neurons were so impaired & who's values so contradicted mine, that it made me feel I had somehow caught syphilis or a similar blood disease when there was absolutely no way i could of done & all tests were clear.

5. Synesthesia; just been looking into this again a few days back... still trying to work out if i feel/sense, often see via dreams, people's deepest hurts (and often deeply buried under ego) by touch or hearing what music they play... maybe its both!

Thanks again so much for all you do, raising awareness about all this stuff is so important!

Ingrid Ruhrmann commented on 01-Mar-2017 10:25 PM
Judith Orloff, I so admire your work and I would like to thank you for helping me understand myself better.

YES to all written above !!! someone once called me an enigma ^I^
Crissy commented on 14-Mar-2017 05:49 PM
Hi, I wanted to reach out and thank you for this book. I just ordered it after I read your list which I feel is exactly me. Nice to know there are people like you that's an empath. Thank you so much. ��
Lisa commented on 15-Mar-2017 02:29 PM
I have mirror touch synesthesia. Thanked God there was finally a name for it. I always knew stuff I wasn't supposed to. But I thought everyone had this extra sense. It is very exact: If I'm talking to someone whose knee hurts, even over the phone, my knee will hurt. I'll say, "Whose knee hurts?" People are very impressed with this psychic feat, but to me it is as basic as being hit with a hammer.

I can't watch any of those "Fails" on YouTube, because I feel the fall as if it is happening to me. I also feel it across species, especially with horses, since I've worked with them more than 30 years.

These plasticities have been life savers in adapting to brain injury, but mainstream medicine is appalled by me, and I am often misdiagnosed with psychiatric disorders while urgent metabolic disorders wreak havoc. One of the things that disturbs me is no one is teaching our doctors to retain even a glimmer of empathy. We're getting more empathic, and they're shutting down.
Dr. Halle commented on 05-Apr-2017 12:42 AM
I will add (to my previous comment) that the amygdala seems to be key part of the "fight-flight" alarm system, associated with the Sympathetic Division of the Autonomic Nervous System. When functioning properly, it works as an important ally, when we are facing an attack—a genuine and threatening confrontation. When the threshold is set too low (something like the principle of a house's thermostat being out of adjustment), the individual is perpetually victimized by torrential bouts of anxiety, totally out of proportion to the attack (or imagined attack), and this can be horrifically debilitating. Of course, should one have, in their history, something in the early environment akin to your classical "dysfunctional family," these upsets of anxiety and fear (considering the usual plethora of "psych. games," i.e., a pressing incidence of “melodrama”), can only be further exacerbated, and the sufferer’s daily life may be a LIVING HELL.


Dr. T.C. Halle ; )
Henry Reed commented on 05-Apr-2017 11:57 AM
I have yet to read from an empathy expert as to how empathy may be selective in what they "pick up," empatizing more to emotions that relate than to those that hVe no relation to the Empath...

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