Empathy and compassion are similar, of course, but not the same. Empathy is “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” such as feeling pain or sadness in response to someone else’s suffering. Compassion, however, is translating this experience of another person’s suffering into action in order to improve their situation, to alleviate their suffering. This study demonstrated the difference between compassion and empathy in the brain. The brain actually responds differently to others’ suffering when it has been trained to be empathetic versus compassionate. This study was able to tell us how empathy and compassion produce different behaviors and use different parts of the brain, bridging behavioral changes with structural and biochemical changes.
The experimenters trained a control group in an unrelated memory-skills task, and an experimental group (first empathy, then compassion). The control group was shown emotionally-laden videos depicting suffering after completing two memory-skills training sessions. The experimental group was shown the same type of videos after empathy training, and again after compassion training. The control group showed no significant changes in mood in response to the video following training. In the experimental group, after only empathy training, participants reported few good feelings, and many negative feelings.
However, this changed after compassion training; participants reported feeling more positive feelings and less negative ones. This was reflected in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) results as well. The regions of the brain that were activated in response to the emotional videos following empathy training were the same regions that are activated in pain processing and were different from those that were activated after compassion training.
This paper shows that it is possible to teach both empathy and compassion effectively, and that they have different effects on brain function and mood. It is encouraging that we can learn empathy so effectively and truly “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” However, repeated experiences of empathy can lead to burnout and depression, which is why we need to teach people to put their empathy into action by being compassionate. Compassion, therefore, has important implications for brain health, such as preventing burnout and stress-related diseases. By actually acting on empathy, not only will you be able to help others who are suffering, but you will also feel better and have a healthier brain. This has important implications for those in vocations that involve being repeatedly exposed to others’ suffering. Compassion is a key component to improving brain health to victims and all who are affected by suffering.