Is empathetic bad without strong boundaries

empathyNo border between me and you

"We walk down the street somewhere and see someone fall on a bike and get very painful, and it almost hurts us a little."

"When I watch a footballer and he gets injured and it makes me 'ouch' - those are the things that we investigate."

"I feel his emotions and the fear and the pain and the shortness of breath of the person lying on the ground. It's like I'm a guest in his body and in his mind. It's like an out-of-body experience."

"So the question is, is this simulation? Are we simulating what happens to the other?"

Physically empathize with what you actually only see

"There is someone sitting across from me in the train. And then I think, oh, he has sweaty fingers, although I don't even know whether his fingers are sweaty, and then I feel the sweat, even though I don't have any sweaty fingers. I never have sweaty fingers. But then I feel the sweat on my fingertips and think: Boh, how uncomfortable, but I have to wash my hands right away. That's what happens to me. Although I neither touched it nor did it anything else. "

Nina Gatter feels in her own body what she actually only sees: how a person is caressed, how he is kissed, how he is pushed or injured. Usually empathy is so commonplace that she doesn't even notice. But the more relaxed she is, the more she perceives it:

"I once sat at a massage where my partner had a massage. And then I sit like a dreamy child and then I look, well, that was the total aha experience for me. I felt every touch. The touch and the emotion that was associated with it. Both of them! Well, I can't describe that, it's totally crazy. "

Social interaction with great individual differences

Almost all of us get carried away by a friend's laughter, as well as by the confidence of a colleague when a project comes to a standstill. Sometimes negative vibrations hang in the air: An irritated colleague can then spread a bad mood throughout the office.

Feelings are contagious - how strong, that varies a lot from person to person.

"In my working group we are interested in how we all perceive our social environment and interact with it. We don't want to understand this just for one group, for example for typical adults or mirror-touch synaesthetes, but for very different ones. We are interested in the individual differences. People who sympathize with pain offer an interesting window into these processes. "

Thrillers and horror films - for some an entertaining thrill, for others unbearable brutality (imago / United Archives)

Michael Banissy is a psychologist at Goldsmiths University in London. He is concerned about why one person enjoys the thrill of an exciting thriller while the next finds the brutality unbearable. Or at a funeral: some mourners remain calm when they talk to the troubled widow, others have tears in their eyes immediately. How is it that some people are so sensitive and others hardly? Nina Gatter:

"What can be unbearable for me, for example, is when I'm sitting across from someone who radiates such sadness. And I feel it physically, the sadness. And that's just for me when I'm so permeable and open and open-pored, then these things flow in on me very intensely. But I believe we humans all have this ability. "

"Mirror-Touch-Synesthesia" as a research subject

Nina Gatter is wrong here. Most of us do not know what they experience as normal. The phenomenon is known as mirror-touch synesthesia. Bold estimates put 1.6 to 2 percent of the population. They are mentally healthy people who know that touching does not affect them, even though they empathize with them intensely.

Michael Banissy and his research group are researching mirror-touch synesthesia because it is at the extreme end of the spectrum of human sensitivity and thus offers a possibility to take a closer look at what happens in our brain when we feel empathy. In 2005, a study was published for the first time in which the brain activity of a mirror-touch synaesthet was observed using imaging methods. It provided the basis for a first theory, explains the psychologist Natalie Bowling from Banissy's group:

"This theory is based on the evidence that when we see someone being touched or feel pain in our brain, some of the same regions are involved in processing as when we ourselves experience touch or pain. And that is something happens to all of us, not just to people with synesthesia. "

When we meet other people, it triggers a response in us. Sometimes we find ourselves crossing our arms a few seconds after the other person has crossed his arms. Or how we involuntarily nod our head because the other person is doing the same thing. On a very direct and simple level, emotional contagion probably arises from the fact that we permanently and automatically imitate the facial expressions, voice, gestures and posture of our counterpart. By resonating, for example imitating the angry facial expression of the other and activating the corresponding muscles ourselves, a similar feeling arises in us, albeit in a weakened form.

Imaging methods can be used to identify the currently active areas in the human brain (AFP / Photo: Miguel Medina)

Simulation of the counterpart with "mirror neurons"

In the early nineteen-nineties, two researchers in Italy caused a sensation with a discovery in neuropsychology. By chance they observed that the same neurons always fire in a monkey's brain, regardless of whether the monkey itself reaches for a nut or just watches a person reach for it. Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese named these nerve cells "mirror neurons".

Evidence of the activity of individual neurons is difficult to repeat in humans. However, imaging techniques are now being used more and more frequently. The brain scanner shows that similar regions are activated, regardless of whether we experience a certain stimulus on our own body or observe it in others. It seems that our brain is constantly simulating the feelings of our counterpart, be it pain, touch or other feelings. Bowling:

"But in people with mirror-touch synesthesia, we see an overactivation of these parts of the brain. So, for example, we see greater activity in the areas responsible for touch when they see someone being touched."

Does overactivation in the brain lead to its own perception of stimuli?

The British neuroscientists around Banissy therefore speak of the threshold theory. The simulation that our brain operates is apparently so strong in mirror-touch synaesthetes that a threshold is exceeded and - unlike most other people - they perceive the stimulus in themselves.

Is it even possible to speak of synesthesia with Mirror-Touch, a term that was found for people who, for example, also see colors or taste sounds with numbers?

In fact, the term mirror-touch synesthesia is controversial. Here, too, the impressions of the sense of sight and touch are closely linked. But there is much to suggest that those affected do not perceive what they see differently than most people, but only more violently.

In order to prove this, Banissy and his working group have meanwhile expanded their studies from the very special mirror-touch synesthesia to a broader group: namely to people who do not physically feel the other's touch, but pain. Banissy:

"After our first releases, a lot of people came up to us saying they also have something like mirror-touch synesthesia. People who said that when I see pain, I experience it physically. Over the years, we've got more and more such reports. And we were finally able to show that it is a related phenomenon. "

The empathy for pain or fear makes sense in evolutionary terms - for example for a quick escape reaction (AP)

Empathy with pain makes sense in evolutionary terms

A bird flutters and the whole flock immediately rises into the air - from an evolutionary point of view, it is a great advantage to be alerted by injuries that others experience and to prepare to flee. In fact, it is precisely the sympathy for pain that has been well researched in neuroscientific terms. Various studies show neural overlaps, including in the anterior islet cortex and middle cingulate cortex, when we experience pain ourselves, see it in someone else, or just imagine it.

Most people would say that they feel sorry for someone else. But about one in four reacts violently. The so-called "pain responders" experience nausea and malaise or even a tingling sensation or even pain in the corresponding part of their own body. And they also differ from the rest of the population in another way, explains Natalie Bowling:

"The 'pain-responders' are more aware of their own body sensations. They are more aware of things like their heartbeat or their breath than other people. One explanation is that being aware of one's own body could increase the empathy for other people's emotions."

Our pain empathy obviously also depends on our own body sensation. How much - the Viennese neuropsychologist Claus Lamm was able to show. Lamm, who has been concerned with compassion and empathy for many years, administered a pain reliever placebo to the participants in an experiment. She and someone else were then given short bursts of electric shock. In the brain scanner, Lamm was able to show that the pain reaction was alleviated by the placebo in both situations. Participants felt less pain not only in themselves, but also in others. But that also means that our empathy depends on our own condition. We feel the pain that we think we are seeing, not the pain that the other person really feels.

Difficulties in demarcation between self and others

But there is apparently more to the special sensitivity of the mirror-touch synaesthetes: The British neuroscientists around Banissy found the first clues when they showed participants two unfamiliar hands on a monitor. At random, sometimes the left index finger lifts, sometimes the right. The participants are now asked to either imitate the movement of the fingers or to do the opposite of what the other person is doing, i.e. to exactly raise the other index finger. Actually not a demanding task, but the mirror-touch synaesthetes found it difficult to inhibit the imitation. That was a new lead, reports Natalie Bowling:

"This may indicate a general difficulty in distinguishing between representations of self and other. When mirror-touch synaesthetes try not to imitate another person's movements, they find it difficult. That could mean that there is an impairment in the." There is a change between self and other that cannot be explained simply by the threshold theory. It seems that there is a more complex process underlying it. "

In another experiment, the study participants are touched on the face: either on the right cheek or on the left or not at all. They should show where they feel the touch. At the same time, they see a video in which a strange face is also touched. While the control group does not allow themselves to be disturbed by the images, the mirror-touch synaesthetes react with a considerable delay and make mistakes more often as soon as the touch between them and the other person does not match.

Banissy and colleagues therefore speak of the self-other theory in addition to the threshold theory. Where am I, where the other one? The assumption: With those affected, the line between you and me seems to be blurring. Bowling:

"These two theories are not mutually exclusive, it is not either one or the other. Instead, it is likely a combination of different processes that are responsible for the behavioral patterns we see in mirror-touch synesthesia."

Certain brain region responsible for self-awareness

Somehow everyone knows this: if we empathize, we make other people's feelings our own to some extent. The so-called right temporoparietal junction, a brain region that is probably responsible for self-awareness and the distinction between self and others, could ensure that we do not exaggerate. In fact, neuroscientists found less gray matter in this region among mirror-touch synaesthetes and pain sympathizers. Michael Banissy:

"Like many other things, the primary function of the temporoparietal junction is controversial. There is evidence that this region plays a role in the representations of self and others. It can also play a role in how one differentiates between oneself and others , or how to turn your attention to or away from other people when you take their perspective. "

In addition to imaging methods, transcranial magnetic stimulation offers an opportunity to get closer to the anatomy of the brain. It is stimulated or inhibited from the outside with a strong magnetic field. At the Royal Holloway University in London, the neuropsychologist Manos Tsakiris and colleagues used this method to temporarily block the temporoparietal junction. The experiments showed that when this region of the brain is inhibited, the test subjects sometimes lose the sense of where the limits of their own body run. It was even possible to deceive them so much that they saw inanimate objects as part of their body. Her self-perception was measurably disturbed. Nina Gatter:

"I also peeled myself out of myself as a child and looked down from the universe and then saw the whole world. Those were also bizarre events that I never told anyone."

What color are letters and numbers, people or months? (picture-alliance / dpa / Wolfgang Kluge)

Our perception of the world is extremely subjective

Before our meeting, Nina Gatter and I spoke on the phone and exchanged several emails. Enough contact to have a vague idea of ​​each other. And enough for Nina Gatter to feel a color in connection with me. My color is olive green, she wrote.

"I usually never do that because I find it extremely overpowering. And I don't see colors in all people either, unless I let them be. It's more of a feeling of color. I can't describe it very well. It's not like the color is wafting around your head in puffs, it's a feeling, like the essence of the color. "

Our perception is extremely subjective. We think that all people see, hear, smell, taste and feel the world like we do. That they empathize and are touched in the same way. Nina Gatter did the same for a long time. Until a year ago she realized that her perception was different from most people:

"A few weeks earlier I had talked to my partner about it for so long and said to him, but look, February is here. Where is that with you? And he looks at me: Nina? February is for me just February. And I couldn't make him understand that and then of course you start looking. "

On the internet she came across the terms synesthesia and mirror-touch synesthesia. But how different her perception is sometimes she is only just beginning to understand. When she tries to describe her permeability, she often says things like, "but all people have that" or "that's normal". It sounds a bit like a question.

"And then I asked everyone I know. And I think they all thought a little bit. Also asked my children. They were all a bit surprised about the question."

Taking perspective is a cognitive process

Sometimes we read a novel that is so sad it makes you cry. Even a newspaper report about a war zone can be heavy on our stomachs. We don't have to experience suffering first hand. A strong feeling also arises when we imagine something, hear about it or read something about it. In everyday life we ​​constantly need this ability to think things through. Philipp Kanske, who conducts research at the TU Dresden and the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences in Leipzig, gives a fictional example: The brother tells us that his girlfriend left him.

"Well, it may be that my brother is not giving me that very well, so that I can understand everything. I have to open up a bit, what exactly happened there, what does he actually think. And this opening up that I'm in Slip on the other person's shoes and try to see the situation through their eyes for a moment, that's what we call mentalizing or perspective taking. And that's a cognitive process and not an emotional one like empathy or empathy, but it's a cognitive process, which is initially not emotional. "

Two ways to the feelings of the other person

Emotional empathy on the one hand, cognitive mentalization on the other - two paths that lead to the feelings of our counterpart. Kanske and colleagues were also able to find two separate networks in the brain scanner that are each involved in these processes.

The experiment showed actors in the first videos who reported an experience full of anger, sadness, guilt or shame. Then the test persons were asked to describe what feelings the scenes had triggered in them. In other videos, the actors did not reveal any clear feelings in their reports. The test subjects should nevertheless try to assign feelings. Kanske:

"It's hinted at, but not explicitly named. And in situations like this I also need the ability to put myself into someone's mind in order to be able to fully understand it. And what we can see there is that in situations like this - but really only in these - the networks that are associated with mentalization, that they are then active, that they are not active when the emotions are open, when he names them openly, when I can see them in the face of the other. "

Cognitive and emotional processes in different brain regions

If you see a sad face, you activate typical brain regions that are involved in processing negative emotions. On the other hand, if you have to think to understand the other person's feelings, you apparently activate parts of the temporal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex and - interestingly - the temporoparietal junction. Especially the region that could be responsible for self-awareness and that may be below average among mirror-touch synaesthetes. Kanske:

"To take on cognitive perspectives, I also need a 'self-other-distincton', so I also have to differentiate between myself and the other. Not only when I want to keep my and their emotions apart, but also when I mean and wants to keep his perspectives apart. Here, too, it is important to distinguish between my conditions and those of the other. And that has nothing to do with emotion. "

The importance of both the ability to empathize emotionally and to have cognitive thinking on the other is shown when one of the two is absent. With psychopaths, for example, or convicted violent criminals.

"We once examined a group of people who have all committed serious bodily harm, which is also a criminal offense. And what we see there is that the ability to empathize is not that strong. They form the feeling of others do not do so well spontaneously and do not share the other person's feeling so well. Whereas they have no problem thinking about the other. So, they understand what is going on with the other, but it really has no emotional impact on them. "

Psychopathy and autism as extreme cases

On the other hand, it is now assumed that, contrary to previous theories, people with autism do share the feelings of their counterpart. However, similar to people with mirror-touch synesthesia, they may have difficulties separating their own feelings from those of others, suggest newer research approaches. Here, too, the influence of the temporoparietal transition in the brain is examined. What appears to the outside world like a lack of sympathy with autism could be the attempt to cope with the unchecked influx of feelings. To put it simply: Those who suffer too much cannot comfort the other. In addition, people with autism apparently find it more difficult to correctly classify the expressions of other people's feelings. You have to consciously learn the ability to mentalize. Kanske:

"A distinction is sometimes made between the implicit and explicit assumption of perspective. Many, at least highly functional people with autism, who are therefore not cognitively restricted, who learn throughout their lives, they develop alternative mechanisms so that they ask what the other thinks You can then open up that very consciously, but this implicit, spontaneous, conscious assumption of the perspective of someone else, you just don't seem to be doing that or not being able to do so well. "

Psychopathy and autism are extreme cases. Kanske and colleagues assume that for most people, however, thinking and empathizing complement each other well: Because thinking can of course influence feeling, and vice versa, feeling has an influence on our thinking.

"Somebody sends me a short text. I miss my face, I miss my voice, I miss all those signals that the brain and emotional networks quickly respond to. I have to use language to understand what the other means. Or we read in novels, there we have an elaborate story. And we lack everything that the fast networks need to be activated. And yet at some point we come to the feeling. And of course it stands to reason that we first understand what is going on with the other and that we come to the feeling through it. "

Do people specialize in empathy?

However, people seem to specialize to a certain extent. Good mentalizers seem to rely more on their ability to mentalize, empathetic people more on their empathy. Kanske:

"Is someone who can empathize well, is that also someone who can mentalize well? Is there some kind of common factor in social intelligence? And that's not the case. Empathizing with other people does not automatically make me a good person Thinker, to be a good mentalizer. And the other way around, if I can think about other people well, that doesn't automatically mean that I sympathize a lot with others. "

Empathize, be receptive to the feelings of others and put yourself in the shoes of others - these are highly complex processes that take place in our brain. Studies with mirror-touch synaesthetes or average subjects who are supposed to empathize with others in the brain scanner provide clues as to where in our brain this sympathy could take place, but not how it does it. Nevertheless, there is now a lot of evidence that our brain simulates what is happening to our counterpart. Certain networks are associated with certain functions. And maybe there is actually a region of the brain in which the ego is differentiated from others. They are small pieces of the puzzle, most of which are still missing. But sometimes they fit together surprisingly well.

Permeability as a curse and a blessing

"I think the great danger with someone like me who has very strong antennas for others and cannot use them well for himself is that you are incredible with others and they also enjoy being heard and seen to become, you run the great risk of not taking care of yourself and of setting yourself apart. "

Nina Gatter is a pediatrician. Their permeability was a curse and a blessing at the same time. With a head full of medical knowledge, she also has very direct, intuitive access to her patients. You can see where it hurts. And she knows how the patients feel without many words.

Nina Gatter found out what that could mean in her early career when she was still working in an intensive care unit for children. At that time she reached her limits, physically and mentally.

"Five or six children died over a relatively short period of time, babies that I also accompanied. Thank God that doesn't happen that often. But that was a very intense phase. And I was open to the pain of the mothers, and I took in this pain of the mothers and I felt it firsthand. And I didn't cry out of sympathy for the mothers, but because my child died. My child died. And that's not good. It doesn't help anyone . "

Nina Gatter no longer wants to close up completely, as she did as a young woman to get by better. Switching off the antennas is like having ear plugs in your ears, you only perceive the world in a muffled manner, the subtleties are lost.