Blog Post

What is an Empath?

LS writes: “I hear the term ‘empath’ tossed around all the time, sometimes with the idea that it refers to a person with special powers to feel the emotions of others. What exactly is it?”

Great question, and one that actually has two answers – the New Age answer, and the real answer.

As for the New Age answer, an empath is a person who has special intuitive powers that enables them to not only sympathize with the feelings of another, but to have the ability to feel what they are feeling. It is considered to be a psychic power similar to that of channeling which enables the person to “channel” the emotional state of another person, some other life form, and even the dead.

In the New Age lexicon, there are three different kinds of empaths:

Emotional empaths are so sensitive to the feelings of others that if they encounter someone who is sad, they will also become sad.

Physical empaths are able to feel the bodily pains and illnesses of others.

Intuitive empaths who allegedly have enhanced perception that is believed to come from psychic or telepathic powers that enable them to communicate with all life forms, including animals and plants.

The current explosion of interest in the New Age version of empaths is largely due to the work of Judith Orloff, MD, an American psychiatrist who claims to be an intuitive empath and who uses these abilities in her practice. Dr. Orloff is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) and has a private practice in Los Angeles. She claims to be a practitioner of “Energy psychiatry” which she describes as “a combination of conventional medicine, intuition, spirituality, and energy.”

Her practice is considered to be controversial and is not recognized by mainstream psychiatry.

One can find numerous articles on the internet which describe the “signs” of an (New Age) empath, such as how you can sense the “vibe” in a room or in people, are often overwhelmed with emotion when in public places, are a “walking lie detector”, can’t control your feelings for animals, pets, or babies, and can even feel the physical illnesses of others. Empaths can even sense the inner intentions of people.

Now for the real answer. For that, we must put aside the New Age hype and understand that  empathy is not something that belongs only to “special” people. It’s part of the human condition.

Science tells us that we have empathy “because our brains are wired with empathy as a specific function,” writes Steven Novella, MD, on the NeuroLogica Blog. “There is a circuit in most people’s brains that senses when another creature, especially a human, is feeling pain or is in some distress or experiencing fear. That circuit detects the signs of these emotions and then links to the emotion centers in the brain to produce the same emotion. When someone says, ‘I feel your pain,’ they can mean it literally, especially if they are referring to emotional pain.”

So there's nothing "psychic" or special about this ability.

On the other hand, there are people who lack empathy and do not react with any degree of compassion to another person’s suffering. Science recognizes this absence of empathy as a disorder known as psychopathy.

An estimated 1 percent of the population is psychopathic (which amounts to 3,331,000 people), as is about 20 to 30 percent of the prison population.

What causes this lack of empathy in certain individuals, particularly those prone to violence against others?

One study, using MRI scanning of the brains of prisoners who scored highly on the psychopathy scale, found that while they were watching people in distress, the brains of these prisoners exhibited less activation in certain parts of the brain associated with emotions, particularly that of fear.

“This study supports what was suspected clinically – that psychopaths simply lack that circuit in the brain that creates empathy,” Dr. Novella writes.

He suggests that people who lack the ability to be empathic should be treated more like patients than criminals. “This does not mean that they should not be punished for crimes or locked away to protect the public from the truly dangerous psychopaths,” he writes, “but it does mean that perhaps we can view them with a bit of compassion and explore ways to hopefully one day correct the deficit.”

This may be one solution to a problem that could help make the world a much less violent place, but Scripture hints at another, even more perfect approach to changing the wounded hearts of mankind: “And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

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