If we’re going to get started, we have to get some basics down. And the biggest is that empathy is NOT sympathy. I find that whenever I start talking about empathy, folks inevitably think that I’m asking people to feel sorry for other people — or that empathy really means compassion. Empathy can lead to compassion, or sympathy, but that’s not what it is.
What empathy really means is connection between sentient beings. And it’s dependent on all sorts of levels of neural function — from the very bottom of the brainstem, to the top of your prefrontal cortex. How all those things are wired together with your own body will be a post in itself. The bottom line is that empathy is the connector — the generator of coordinated action among humans. And empathy, in its many forms, can lead to wonderful positive things, as well as negative things.
Takeaway: Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is about connection. And often, empathy can be value-neutral — neither good nor evil. Remember, Darth Vader could feel the Force.
Further reading (and this isn’t great, but it gives a pretty large swath of real estate to think about. I’ll cover more and less of this as we go on this journey together.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy