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Curr Biol. 2014 Sep 22;24(18):R875-R878. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.06.054.

Empathy and compassion.

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Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Department of Social Neuroscience, Leipzig, Germany. Electronic address:
Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland; Laboratory for the Study of Emotion Elicitation and Expression, Department of Psychology, University of Geneva, Switzerland; Laboratory for Behavioral Neurology and Imaging of Cognition, Department of Neuroscience, Medical School, University of Geneva, Switzerland.


As humans we are a highly social species: in order to coordinate our joint actions and assure successful communication, we use language skills to explicitly convey information to each other, and social abilities such as empathy or perspective taking to infer another person's emotions and mental state. The human cognitive capacity to draw inferences about other peoples' beliefs, intentions and thoughts has been termed mentalizing, theory of mind or cognitive perspective taking. This capacity makes it possible, for instance, to understand that people may have views that differ from our own. Conversely, the capacity to share the feelings of others is called empathy. Empathy makes it possible to resonate with others' positive and negative feelings alike--we can thus feel happy when we vicariously share the joy of others and we can share the experience of suffering when we empathize with someone in pain. Importantly, in empathy one feels with someone, but one does not confuse oneself with the other; that is, one still knows that the emotion one resonates with is the emotion of another. If this self-other distinction is not present, we speak of emotion contagion, a precursor of empathy that is already present in babies.

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