Empathy and the Monkey Business of Brain Tangos

Seek first to understand, then to be understood – Stephen R. Covey

Increasing your emotional intelligence is definitely Black-Belt territory. Coping with your own emotional experiences is one game you might have learned to master by now, but dancing the emotional tango while understanding and engaging with others, especially in relationships is nowhere near under your control yet.

This is a warning.

The more you meditate, the more emotionally open you become. When you do mindfulness exercises, you strengthen the part of the brain, called the “insula”. It is your ability to describe and experience body functions and it improves what we call “Self-Awareness”.

Now, the interesting thing is, when you strengthen your insula, you develop self-awareness and empathy simultaneously as they are interconnected. Two for the price of one ;-)!

Our brains are actually pre-wired for empathy and social cognition.

Have you ever wondered why people become so engaged just watching sports, almost loosing their temper?
Or why you get aroused by watching people make love?
Or why we loose it completely at a very emotional movie?
The effect is much stronger in “real” life, when you see a loved one in pain and can feel it as well.

Everyone is already empathic to a certain level, it means you can relate to other people’s feelings. Being an empath means you “feel” other people’s feeling, it is another term for clairsentient.

As a strong empath I am very sensitive and can actually feel people’s emotions. Sometimes I even pick those up and get confused because they are not my own emotions. In certain situations it is really helpful to understand and connect on a deeper level with the other person. But it took me a little while to figure out what is going on. When I started meditating regularly this ability become so strong, sometimes overwhelming. That’s why I am right now so selective with whom I spend my time with.

Empathy is the ability to understand people and resonate with others, voluntarily or involuntarily. If you are feeling empathy you possess the ability to sense others on many different levels. By observing what another is saying, feeling and thinking, you come to understand another deeper. Empathy is also strongly connected with telepathy.

From a scientific point of view, empathy works by having you physiologically mimic the other person. Daniel Goleman, a bestselling science journalist, uses the word “emotional tango” and “entrainment” to describe this phenomenon.

This congenital tendency for imitation was first observed in monkeys where “mirror neurons” in the monkey’s prefrontal cortex respond both when the monkey grabs a piece of food and when it watches another monkey take it. The same happens in our brains, when we crinch when we see someone get hurt. Mirror neurons are also the reason why the porn industry is making billions of dollars. Thanks to mirror neurons we feel pleasure when we watch someone else experiencing it.

This is actually the neural foundation of compassion. Did you know that compassion in latin means “suffering together”?


And now get this: meditation increases mirror neuron functioning. This means, the more you meditate, the more your self-awareness increases hence your empathy. You have more access to your own emotions as well as you become open to feeling others stronger and deeper.

So, what are the benefits of empathy?

  • Empathy connects you with others on a deeper level
  • It can be a healing experience, if someone empathizes with you (not to mix up with sympathy)
  • It helps to quickly build up trust with the other person
  • You get immediate feedback on a feeling level in your communication (sense their emotion before you respond or reflect them back to make sure you sensed it right)
  • You “know” when someone is lying
  • You have easy access to information what is going on around you
  • Practicing empathy and compassion increases your emotional intelligence
  • Empathic listening is a great skill to have in every area of your life

Here is a cute 1-Minute-Video of Audrey Hepburn explaining empathy. Enjoy 😉

Source: “Search Inside Yourself“, Chade-Meng Tan, Summary of the chapter “Empathy and the Monkey Business of Brain Tangos”

Photocredit: Shutterstock