What Are Empaths? 14 Empath Traits And Scientific Theories
In science fiction and fantasy stories, empaths are able to detect and understand the emotions of people around them. So, are empaths real? As it turns out, there is credible scientific evidence of empaths. Intense empathy isn’t supernatural. Rather, it’s an evolved form of intuition that may relate to a range of biological and psychological differences between you and other individuals. While there are undoubtedly enormous benefits to being an empath, there are also significant struggles associated with this skillset.
If you have high levels of empathy, they must be carefully managed in order to prevent burnout. This guide will help you understand what being an empath means and can help you learn how to tell whether you are one of them. We’ll also explore the latest scientific research on empaths, such as studies revolving around mirror neurons in humans. These studies may be able to shed light on why some people develop in this unique way.
What Are Empaths?
In a nutshell, empaths are individuals who pick up and absorb the emotions of others around them. Sometimes described in terms of reading another person's energy, this skill comes to the fore both in close relationships and in superficial interactions with strangers. This high level of sensitivity means that empaths are highly capable of offering understanding and compassion. Similarly, it also means that they can easily become overwhelmed.
It's also important to note that many empaths aren't limited to detecting emotions. They may also pick up physical sensations and can sense someone's spiritual orientation. They may also be able to tune into a person's motivation or immediately read their intentions.
In some cases, empaths are entirely aware that they are experiencing feelings that don't belong to them. However, in other cases (and especially in early life), empaths may be genuinely confused by what they pick up. Consequently, they may find it hard to know what they really want. Self-reflective journalling and therapy can be extremely useful to an empath; these processes allow them to examine their thoughts, emotions, and desires without the usual level of interference.
With this broad picture in mind, we can now move on to look at the main traits that are commonly seen in empaths.
Are You An Empath? 14 Traits Of An Empath
Empaths can experience their gifts differently, especially depending on when (or whether) they realize that they are significantly different from the average person.
In addition, empathy (like all traits) comes by degrees, so some empaths will notice all fourteen major signs while others may only spot a handful. However, if you're an empath, there's a good chance that you've had most of these experiences at least once in your life.
Think of the following list as a kind of empath test; if you’re asking “Am I an empath or just sensitive?”, canvassing these traits may help you to clarify your self-conception.
1. Empaths are highly sensitive and emotional.
Empaths are very open, easy to trust, and very responsive to emotional experiences (whether their own or someone else's).
This sensitivity means you can experience the highest highs, but it also curses you with the lowest lows, and with a propensity to be deeply hurt by fractured relationships. If you're an empath, you may go through a wide range of emotions every day, both because of your own responses to life and because of what you pick up.
2. They are often introverts and need alone time.
While you likely love intensely and genuinely care for people, your propensity to take on their emotions means that alone time is essential. Indeed, most empaths recharge when they're on their own, rather than deriving energy from social situations (like extroverts do).
So, if you have higher than average levels of empathy, there are probably many weekends when you'd rather curl up at home with a good book than accept an invitation to a party.
3. Unfortunately, empaths are easy targets for manipulators.
Your empathy means that people may sometimes take advantage of you. Consequently, they may manipulate you into a position where you meet their emotional needs and get very little out of the relationship yourself.
For example, you may have noticed that you often attract narcissists (who are at the opposite end of the empathy spectrum) and victims (who need to be “rescued” by compassionate individuals). Consequently, empaths need to be careful about who they let into their hearts.
4. They have great intuition and keen senses.
One of the most obvious empath traits is the ability to pick up on subtle cues way earlier than most people. So, you might notice a potential romance between two friends before anyone else does or you may pick up indications of danger very quickly. Plus, you probably have a talent for taking calculated risks.
This intuitive sharpness is one of the great benefits of empathy and gives you an edge in many areas of life.
5. They take on other people’s feelings and issues.
As noted above, being an empath makes you susceptible to muddling your emotions with those of others. For example, you might take on the bad moods of colleagues and end up fighting with your partner. Or, you may passively absorb the views of a group that do not typically represent your values.
Creating and maintaining boundaries between yourself and others is a vital part of living with enhanced empathy, allowing you to identify what's really yours.
6. Empaths tend to be incredibly creative.
The heightened emotions and experiences of empaths gives them an enormous wealth of material to express in creative ways. If you're an empath, it's likely that you are frequently inspired because of what you feel.
Some empaths are traditional artists, musicians or writers, while others are actors, dancers, or physically expressive in other ways. In many cases, creative acts help empaths release pent-up emotion in a healthy, productive way.
Unsurprisingly, the friends and family of empaths often report that they are fantastic listeners. This is because being a truly good listener requires putting yourself in the other person's shoes; no one is better at doing that than someone who intuitively picks up emotions.
Empaths are often wonderful at putting a loved one's feelings into words, making them feel understood, respected and less alone. Consequently, empaths often gravitate towards jobs that involve listening (e.g. counseling and teaching).
8. They hate to say no.
Due to being able to feel other people's disappointment, desperation and sadness, empaths really hate to have to say no. This means they often take on way too many commitments! Unfortunately, this is usually all so that they can meet the need of their friends, family members or co-workers. If you're an empath, you're also so used to doing emotional labor for other people that you may just automatically expand this to induce general favors, even if you're already over-burdened.
9. Empaths are human lie detectors.
In general, you'll benefit from the ability to pick up lies in other people. It can help you make early decisions about whether to trust someone with a secret, for example. It can also help you protect your loved ones from liars. The less pleasant side of being a human lie detector is that it allows you to see through someone when you'd rather stay in the dark. This can be painful, even though it's helpful.
10. They often suffer from fatigue and anxiety.
There are many positive effects of kindness on health. However, if you’re an empath then the level of kindness you extend to others may be downright exhausting. You can be so busy trying to carry other people's emotions, listening to their issues and helping them solve their problems that you become physically fatigued or emotionally strung out. As a result, empaths are susceptible to chronic fatigue syndrome and to mental health issues likes anxiety and depression.
(Read our full article on secret signs of depression – Overcome Depression: 7 Secret Signs Of Depression To Look Out For.)
11. They can be easily overwhelmed by their empathic powers.
Even once you understand your empathy quite well and have learned techniques to separate your emotions, it's very easy to tip back over into being overwhelmed again.
For example, if someone you love is in distress, you might be utterly swamped by their sadness. Meanwhile, if you're in a large crowd then the proximity of so many minds and emotions can feel too much to bear. These are some of the many reasons why empaths need time alone.
12. Empaths love to be surrounded by nature.
Everyday life tends to be hectic and noisy, so it's no wonder that empaths thrive in nature. If you have a high level of empathy, being out in wide-open spaces can feel wonderfully quiet and replenishing. In fact, many empaths cite being by the ocean or going for walks in the country as necessary ingredients of their self-care routines. As well as offering peace and quiet, time in nature can give you a sense of release.
13. They are chronic daydreamers.
One of the less obvious empath signs is consistent daydreaming. This is often associated with the vivid imagination of the empath. Consequently, this allows you to contemplate an endless range of scenarios (especially scenarios that are highly emotionally evocative).
In addition, daydreaming can feel like a way of escaping everyday life. So, many empaths will turn to the power of their creative minds. This can help to distract them from the overwhelming emotions of others around them.
14. Empaths often neglect themselves.
Empaths can become so focused on the needs and feelings of others that they effectively begin to “tune out” their own needs. In extreme cases, this can lead to self-neglect, leading you to become physically or emotionally unwell. To live a full, happy life, someone with high levels of empathy needs to deliberately spend time noticing their own thoughts and feelings. A daily mindfulness or meditation practice can help with this, cultivating a habit of self-reflection.
6 Scientific Theories Behind Empathy
Now that you have a better sense of whether you qualify as an empath, you may be wondering what on earth accounts for this ability. Intuiting the feelings and thoughts of others can feel downright bizarre and unnerving sometimes. Meanwhile, if you don't identify as an empath and find yourself becoming an empath skeptic, you are probably wondering whether there is really any credible evidence that such individuals actually exist.
As it turns out, there are at least six plausible scientific explanations for what may seem, on the first inspection, to be an implausible superpower. We'll summarize the latest research below. Plus, we will try to explain the ramifications it could have for developing a better understanding of empathy in the future. While the jury is still out regarding why exactly some people develop an enhanced capacity for empathy, it's highly likely that one or more of the following hypotheses will prove correct.
1. Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder is a condition that makes the affected individual's brain struggle to work through the information absorbed from the world around them. It can make you oversensitive to everything from smells to sounds and light touches on the skin. This process can be perceived as painful. And when life gets too noisy or over-stimulating in some other way you may wobble on your feet, trip up easily, and find it difficult to judge distances. Some people even report dizziness, as well as increased anxiety.
Now, how does all of this relate to empathy? Some scientists have suggested that sensory sensitivity may also occur at the level of emotions in some people. This would make them much more aware of the feelings of others. On this view, enhanced empathy is the emotional equivalent of feeling pain at the gentlest touch on your arm.
As for what causes sensory processing disorder in the first instance, the evidence is mixed. Some studies indicate a genetic component (so empaths may have at least one highly empathetic parent), and others link sensory processing disorder to abnormal brain activity that occurs in response to noise or light.
2. Empaths Could Have Overactive Mirror Neurons
In the simplest terms, mirror neurons are brain cells that have a proven link to human compassion. It is because of these neurons that the majority of us are able to experience at least minimal empathy. For example, feeling sad when someone is hurting, or experiencing happiness in the face of another person's joyful success.
Studies show that the mirror neurons activate during empathetic engagement between physicians and patients. Brain scans indicate that when we see someone experiencing an emotion, these mirror neurons fire in areas of the brain that correspond to those observed emotions. Scientists have found that mirror neurons also play a role in the behavior of other animals, especially primates.
The connection between mirror neurons and empaths is that there's a strong possibility that more neurons may lead to more intense empathy. So, if you're an empath, you may have a larger than average proliferation of these brain cells. Once again, there is likely to be a genetic component in play here.
However, research into other determining factors is ongoing. Meanwhile, people who have some form of antisocial personality disorder (e.g. sociopaths and psychopaths) may have fewer than average mirror neurons.
On an entirely different note, many of the above empath symptoms could be explained by electromagnetism. This particular theory derives from some fascinating work conducted by researchers at the HeartMath Institute, who have explored whether our electromagnetic fields are capable of influencing the magnetic fields of others.
In particular, the HeartMath Institute has discussed findings suggesting that our hearts and brains generate their own, unique electromagnetic fields. These fields are thought to be able to communicate certain content about the individual's feelings, desires and beliefs, even those among us who are not natural born empaths.
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These facts about electromagnetism mean that it is possible that empaths have a heightened sensitivity to the electromagnetic fields by the hearts and brains of people in their vicinity. Consequently, the empath could become so sensitive that this process is emotionally and physically draining. It remains an open question whether empaths can do anything to regulate this sensitivity.
Other promising areas of future research include whether the impact on the empath varies depending on facts about the field produced by the other individual. If so, we could conclude whether this indicates anything significant about the potential depth of relationship that might develop between the empath and the other person.
4. Hormone And Chemical Sensitivities
Parts of empath psychology could also relate to hormone levels, and to levels of neurotransmitters (i.e. chemical messengers in our brains).
One particularly promising contender is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in how we respond to pleasure (and how we learn to develop habits that promote pleasure in the longer term). Studies on dopamine levels in the general population indicate that introverted people are most sensitive to dopamine when compared to extroverted individuals. This means that introverted people tend to need lower levels of dopamine in order to experience happiness and pleasure. It's possible that this tendency generalizes.
So, if you're an introverted empath, you may just be more sensitive to small chemical changes in the body, including those that are induced by contact with other people. In addition, there may be other hormones and neurotransmitters in play when it comes to empathy.
Further research may reveal other links between empathy and biological sensitivity. This could, in turn, lead to research on how we might enhance empathy in those who lack it.
5. Emotions May Be Contagious
We are now beginning to understand just how contagious emotions can be. Emotion contagion is now a documented phenomenon; it helps to explain how and why we pick up the feelings of those around us. Even the average individual is impacted by emotional contagion. For example, babies cry when they can hear other infants becoming upset. Plus, if one person exhibits signs of anxiety then it can quickly begin to spread throughout a bigger group.
Positive emotions can be contagious too. For example, random acts of kindness statistics show that people become more compassionate when they receive compassion, and the benefits of acts of kindness can also extend to those who merely observe compassion.
To trace out the implications that this has for our scientific understanding of empaths, consider that empaths may be biologically or psychologically more likely to “catch” emotional contagions. However, the exact mechanism via which this might occur still remains mysterious. There is also a positive piece of learning here for empaths. Specifically, research on emotional contagion shows how empaths can surround themselves with upbeat, happy and encouraging people in order to deliberately catch good feelings from others.
The final hypothesis worth considering is that empaths may experience a unique form of synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological trait that links two different senses that wouldn't normally be associated with each other. For example, some individuals with synesthesia will taste particular flavors when they see certain colors. Others will associate numbers with a musical sound. In addition, some forms of synesthesia might include smelling scents when listening to songs. Or, linking particular colors to specific bodily sensations. Many people say this is a key part of their creativity; they simply don't know what life is like for the rest of us!
However, in the case of empaths, some researchers have theorized that something called mirror-touch synesthesia is occurring. This type of condition would allow the empath to literally feel what other people are feeling. This is described as though these emotions are originating in their own bodies and not outside them. On this view, excessive empathy is a medically benign neurological abnormality that comes with benefits and challenges, just like all forms of synesthesia.
To investigate this hypothesis further, scientists may want to test whether empaths tend to have other, overlapping forms of regular sense synesthesia as well.
While many wonderful and perplexing questions remain, we have seen how the experiences of empaths may be explained from a scientific perspective. We've also looked at how we can distinguish enhanced empathy from mere sensitivity. Try to consider some of the ways in which you might get the best out of being an empath. However, make sure you continue to protect yourself from some of the associated dangers.
What are your experiences of empathy, both in yourself and others? Do you wish you were more or less empathetic, and why?