From Scien­tific Amer­ican: About 250 years ago, Adam Smith famously described the way observers might feel watching a tightrope walker. Even while standing on solid ground, our palms sweat and our hearts race as someone wobbles hundreds of feet in the air (you can test this out here). In essence, we expe­ri­ence this person’s state as our own.

Centuries later, this defi­n­i­tion does a surpris­ingly good job at capturing scien­tific models of empathy. Evidence from across the social and natural sciences suggests that we take on others’ facial expres­sions, postures, moods, and even patterns of brain activity. This type of empathy is largely auto­matic. For instance, people imitate others’ facial expres­sions after just a frac­tion of a second, often without real­izing they’re doing so. Mood conta­gion like­wise oper­ates under the surface. Ther­a­pists often report that, despite their best efforts, they take on patients’ moods, consis­tent with evidence from a number of studies. · Go to Empathy as a choice →