Just a brief note before we get started — one of the beauties of being a mechanical engineering professor writing about empathy is that I don’t have to hold to any particular conventions. I can slice and dice behavior as I see fit, and can pay as much tribute to the psychological literature as I like.
This is kind of the way I feel about what I call emotional empathy. Emotional empathy, as I define it, is the next level up in emergent brain function that comes from connecting with another sentient agent at the limbic system level. The limbic system is the next hunk of gray matter we evolved on top of our autonomic nervous system and cerebellum. In the Triune theory of the brain (which we will discuss later) this is the poorly named neomammalian cortex — responsible for our emotions and basic attachment behavior. Emotional empathy also typically works on short time and spatial scales — you see someone crying, you feel bad, and you attempt to comfort them. You hear a baby hollering, you pick it up, soothe it, and then after some modestly predictable time, the baby is happy and you put it back in its crib. Or something — depends on what that baby wants.
Emotional empathy has a lot in common with what the psychological literature calls affective empathy, which is the usual separation of types of empathy that that particular set of researchers makes. The main point of difference is that emotional empathy is scaffolded on top of mirroring behavior in my way of thinking. What this means is the emotional empathy includes not just the effects of the limbic system (you feel happy when someone is happy, sad when someone is sad,) but is also triggered by those deeper reactions to facial gestures and body motions that characterize mirroring behavior. This is yet another byproduct of emergent differentiation that was introduced previously. In short, emotional empathy involves coupling between the limbic and lower brain systems.
Emotional empathy is also likely a meta-linear phenomenon. What that means is that it also displays behavior that we associate with linear systems — namely exponential roll-off, some type of amplification (or attenuation) and delay in response. You can obviously have emotional empathy triggered by a phone call, or contact. But it’s also much more likely to work in person. And the coherence that empathy generates is also much more likely to be predictable in time scale among large groups of people. You know how long it’s likely you’re going to have to help out your friend through empathizing. Emotional empathy, while involving two parties, is also primarily simplex in nature — the communication is going one way while it’s happening, and that has implications on social structure, which we’ll get back to.
Emotional empathy and mirroring behavior from my observations comprise the majority of empathetic responses that most people feel. And I’d like to talk some more, but I have to pat my dog. This should only take a few minutes!
Takeaways: Emotional empathy has a lot in common with affective empathy — the sharing of emotions between people. It helps to be in the same room, though.
Further reading: This is one way of unpacking some ideas I’ll present later. We’ll come back to this for a more systemic explanation.