Yawning, Empathy, and Understanding

It all started in endocrinology class a few weeks ago. My professor was talking about behavior that’s influenced by hormones during development and around puberty. One of the behaviors he mentioned was yawning in rhesus monkeys. Then, to demonstrate, he yawned.

It took me a split-second to understand what he was doing. But by then it was too late, and I’m pretty sure that knowing his intention wouldn’t have stopped me anyway. I started yawning too. The class noticed, and with a chuckle my professor continued on with the lecture, having made his point.

A week or two later, I was having dinner with a small group of friends, when the same thing happened. A friend across from me started yawning, and almost immediately I yawned back. This happened about 3 or 4 times, to the point where we both started laughing because it was so comical.

Since these two incidents, I’ve been noticing the occasions when I’ve yawned, and I don’t think all of them were due to fatigue (although a good number probably were). I suspect that in recent weeks, I’ve been yawning a lot more in response to others because I’m starting to expect it of myself.

What’s interesting about yawning is that it’s a socially contagious phenomenon, and some studies have found correlational data between yawning and empathy. As someone trained in science (and neuroscience at that), I am obliged to give the caveat that correlation does not imply causation. The data on this subject is not something I’m very familiar with, either.

Despite my own limited knowledge on the subject, however, these past few weeks have got me thinking about empathy more–the ability to relate to another person’s emotions and their perspective. When empathy comes up in conversation, it tends to be mentioned alongside another quality, compassion. A few weeks ago, I related compassion to another closely-related concept, its near enemy pity. And that isn’t even bringing sympathy into the mix.

Empathy, compassion, pity, sympathy…all of these terms have very similar meanings and are difficult to disambiguate. Unfortunately, the etymology doesn’t help much on this one. Empathy breaks down to the Greek em and pathos (“feeling in”), sympathy breaks down to the Greek sun and pathos (“feeling with”), and compassion breaks down to the Latin cum and passus (“suffering with”). Pity is probably the strangest of the bunch–it comes from the Latin pietas, meaning “piety.”  This is perplexing, considering that of the four, it probably has the most negative connotation today. Each term has slightly different implications, but they all relate to one thing: how we respond to the emotions and situations of others.

Responding to other peoples’ situations and feelings presents a fundamental problem: how do we genuinely know another person, their perspective, and what they are thinking and feeling? A blunt answer to this question is that we don’t, and we never can–we only know what we think, feel, and our own perspective.

But this answer isn’t particularly satisfying or helpful–as a matter of fact, it can be paralyzing if you push it to its logical extreme. If you only know what you experience, then how do you know that anything outside of your own experiences is real? This resembles the question: “If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’m not fond of this philosophical view, because it seems to imply that you need to be present to observe something for it to exist (if you’re interested in this question, though, I encourage you to look up “solipsism”–but for your own sake, don’t get me started on that word’s etymology).

Perhaps we cannot ever truly know what another person is feeling or their perspective. This presents a fundamental limitation of empathy. However, empathy allows us to approximate the feelings of others to an extent–maybe not what someone is feeling, but what their feeling might be like. And sometimes, that approximation can be affect us deeply.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard against empathy is that it allows us to feel another person’s negative emotions, as well as their positive ones. Those negative emotions can cause us distress, to the point where it inhibits our ability to take care of ourselves. Instead, some argue, we should focus on practicing compassion after using empathy–expressing genuine care for someone and the wish that they get better after we try to understand their pain–to protect ourselves from being weighed down by it.

While I firmly value self-care, especially when being present with another person and their suffering, I do have one question: doesn’t that strategy miss the point of what compassion’s literal meaning is? Can you truly call it “suffering with” someone if you only try to understand their pain, then shield yourself from it by showing them concern or wishing them well? You may argue that I’m being too narrow in my definition of compassion, but that’s precisely my point–it’s only one definition of compassion, out of many possible ones. Which brings us back to the issue of disambiguating what empathy, compassion, pity, and sympathy mean.

Another view of compassion, which I align with more, is that compassion involves taking on some of what a person is experiencing, sitting with its weight and processing it for a while to understand it, then putting it down so that you can genuinely care for that person–and yourself. You may take criticism with this definition as well, and I welcome it. But this definition also does not solve the problem of disambiguating these four terms. Perhaps I cannot resolve this ambiguity, but I can offer my perspective and listen to yours and others’ to better appreciate it.

I’ve neglected pity and sympathy, so now I’ll turn to those. These two seem to have a more negative connotation associated with them–a recognition of someone else’s suffering, with a “but” attached to the end of it. For pity, this could be expressed as “I see your suffering, but I could have handled the situation differently,” or “I see your suffering, but I’m in a better place and can’t help you.” There’s a noticeable edge of condescension to this. Sympathy, on the other hand, could be expressed as, “I’m sorry you went through this, but at least you’re okay now.” or “I’m sorry that this happened, but at least this aspect of your life is going well.” There’s an attempt at softening that can come with sympathy, but often that softening of suffering can come off as an insincere attempt to help. But then again, suppose you actually aren’t able to help someone, or you genuinely don’t know how to respond to a person’s suffering. These responses, although they may not be helpful to the other person, may help you get through a difficult situation because in some ways, they are more detached ways of relating to another person.

I bring up these points because these terms are incredibly ambiguous, and whether they are good or bad depends on whom you are trying to help when interacting with another person and attempting to understand their emotions, pleasant or aversive. Humans are incredibly social creatures, and intentions, as well as emotions like pain or behavior like yawning, may pass between or through us without us even being aware of it. I don’t expect any of us (myself included) to get it right every time we interact with someone. But I will leave you with two questions, which I hope you will pause and consider. When you are trying to relate to someone’s perspective or feelings, whom are you trying to understand? And when you are trying to relate to someone’s suffering, whom are you trying to help?

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