Thinkers vs. feelers, sensitive vs. logical, and emotional vs. rational. These differentiations are often made to categorize people into how they empathize — or how they embrace and understand other people’s feelings and perspectives. It turns out that the way you empathize can be traced back to physical differences in the brain.
Typically, empathy is placed into two separate categories: affective and cognitive empathy. The former refers to an individual’s ability to respond properly to another person’s mental or emotional state (i.e. comforting someone when they’re crying). Cognitive empathy, meanwhile, is the ability to understand someone’s mental or emotional state — a slightly more intellectual, detached version of empathizing. People with psychopathy and narcissism have been shown to have impairments in affective but not cognitive empathy.
press release. “Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client.”
The study, published in NeuroImage, examined some 176 participants, measuring the amount of grey matter in certain parts of the brain. People who had higher scores for affective empathy showed more grey matter density in their insula, which is located in the middle of the brain. People with higher levels of cognitive empathy, meanwhile, had more grey matter in the midcingulate cortex.
The results “provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different neural and structural correlates,” the study states.
Past researchers have found a variety of other factors that decide your level of empathy — including environment/upbringing, and your level of luxury/wealth. In one study, researchers found that people experiencing pleasant emotions (such as touching a fuzzy puppy) were far less able to empathize with those experiencing unpleasant emotions (touching slime and maggots). This may provide some insight as to why rich people are historically averse to providing benefits to the poor.
Some researchers believe that you can actually improve your compassion and empathy through thoughtfulness, mindfulness training, meditation, physical activity, and volunteering. A 2013 study found that compassion could be trained by following several simple steps: spending time with family/friends, sending thoughtful messages to people you have a conflict with, exercise, and taking care of yourself (self-compassion).
Source: Eres R, Decety J, Louis W, Molenberghs. Individual differences in local gray matter density are associated with differences in affective and cognitive empathy. NeuroImage. 2015.