Empathy is a mental phenomenon that I have studied a lot recently in my work on mirror neurons. The origin of empathy is quite direct and physical. When you are interacting with someone, you r brain automatically models their physical, emotional, and cognitive signals. The links between these models and your own behavior are pretty strong. This is why yawns are contagious. Your brain models the yawn and this model is connected to the motor neurons in your own brain that control the yawning reaction. When they get activated, you yawn too. I am sure you have all seen this YouTube video and couldn’t help but smile.
At a broader scale, the feeling of empathy emerges when you model a person’s emotional experience. The same links to your own emotional brain areas get lit up and you literally feel the emotion. Different people have different abilities to perceive and model the emotional experience of others, which is why some people are more empathic than others. Then of course what we choose to do about this feeling is where empathy can lead to acts of selflessness and altruism (or not).
There are many examples of spontaneous empathy. But there are also examples of suppression. Have you ever seen a homeless person with their hand out and averted your eyes? You could look forward just as you normally would and just not give the person any money. So why do we look away? It turns out to be an unconscious defense mechanism. If we don’t look at them, we don’t see their emotion. If we don’t see the emotion, our mirror neurons don’t model it (or at least not as much). If our mirror neurons don’t model it, then the links to our own emotional areas don’t get lit up as much, as we literally don’t feel their pain. So it makes it easier to walk on by.
There are two ways you can respond to this insight. I hope that you will choose not to look away next time. Just looking will increase your mirror modeling and thereby increase the chance that your empathic impulse will kick in and you will do the right thing.
Of course, you can also use this insight to become better at suppression. If you prepare ahead of time you can become very good at suppressing your empathy. In another study, people who were warned in advance that they would be asked for a donation felt less empathy when told about some needy children. Apparently, they were able to suppress their emotional response when warned in advance that it would cost them.