Some Limits of Empathy: Insights from Hebraic Thought and Neuroscience
“Like water face to face, thus the heart of man to man.” –Proverbs 27:191Alter, R. (2018). The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: WW Norton.
You’ve probably been in the unfortunate situation in which you were pouring out your heart to a confidante about some difficult experience, and their response was something like, “Oh my goodness, I’ve gone through the exact same thing . . .”—except it wasn’t the same thing; not even close! This is, sadly, a fairly common part of the human experience: someone else tries to empathize with you, only to completely misunderstand what you’re going through. These misunderstandings happen when we don’t pay careful enough attention to the limits of our capacity for empathy.
Enjoying this article? Read more from The Biblical Mind.
We empathize by relating our past experiences to the experience of another person. When used properly, empathy can be a powerful tool for human understanding and connection, and a strong motivator of prosocial behavior. Indeed, former president Barack Obama repeatedly promoted empathy as “a quality of character that can change the world.”2Mieder, W. (2009). “Yes we Can”: Barack Obama’s proverbial rhetoric. New York: Peter Lang. pp. 300–301 However, problems arise when we reach empathy’s limits: when we actually haven’t been through what the other person is going through, but we insist on using our own, very different, experiences to try to understand theirs. This results in an inaccurate understanding of what they are experiencing (as well as numerous instances of well-meaning, but poorly-executed attempts to extend comfort). Due to empathy’s promise and power, it is critical to understand empathy’s limits, to use it effectively. To do so, we will turn to ancient Hebraic insights about empathy—insights that receive support from modern neuroscience.
To begin, it’s worth noting that in today’s age, it’s very easy to place an overconfidence in the power of empathy. The word itself suggests that we can accurately “feel our way” into someone else’s experience (it comes from the German word einfühlung, which means “to feel into”). We also are inundated with popular articles, leadership courses, and self-development books that tout the power of empathy in overinflated ways. Furthermore, there are numerous pop culture references that make our imaginations run wild with visions of the power of empathy: the Avengers’ Wanda Maximoff, the X-Men’s Jean Gray, and the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Mantis all have super-powers of empathy that enable them to fully experience someone else’s memories or current mental state; Star Trek’s Vulcan Mind Meld allows for something similar. Reality is very different: rather than fully “feeling our way” into someone else’s experience, we are only able to use our previous experiences as a stand-in for what the other person experiences. This is an insight that Hebraic thought describes, and recent work from neuroscience points to the neural processes underlying this feature of empathy.
Recent Neuroscientific Work on Empathy
The field of neuroscience has recently provided a fuller picture of these limits upon our capacity for empathy. fMRI studies, which use neuroimaging to measure the activation of different brain regions, have found significant overlap between the brain regions that are activated by recalling one’s previous memories and those that are activated by empathizing with the experience of another person.3Buckner, R. L., & Carroll, D. C. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 49–57.; Spreng, R. N., Mar, R. A., & Kim, A. S. (2009). The common neural basis of autobiographical memory, prospection, navigation, theory of mind and the default mode: A quantitative meta-analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21, 489–510. This provides evidence for the idea that empathy is built out of one’s own past experiences, which are combined and rearranged to imagine what someone else is going through.4Hassabis, D., & Maguire, E. A. (2007). Deconstructing episodic memory with construction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 299–306. Furthermore, there is evidence that individuals with certain impairments in their capacity for empathy, such as certain populations of individuals with autism, schizophrenia, and lesions to a region of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, also have impairments in their autobiographical memory.5Ciaramelli, E., Bernardi, F., & Moscovitch, M. (2013). Individualized Theory of Mind (iToM): When Memory Modulates Empathy. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 4. This suggests that it may be the impairments in autobiographical memory that are causing the impairments in their capacity for empathy, which provides further support for the idea that it is our own previous experiences that ground our capacity for empathic understanding of others.
Consequently, since the underlying neuroscience of empathy suggests that this capacity works by building a representation of someone else’s experiences out of our own previous experiences, this suggests that if our experiences are not sufficiently similar to another’s, our corresponding representation of their experiences will suffer in accuracy. To give you an example from pop culture: in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, the fellowship exits the Mines of Moria, grieving the loss of one of their companions. The camera zooms in on various members of the Fellowship, all outwardly grieving and embracing one another, but the most interesting reaction comes from the elf, Legolas, who stands alone and aloof. Legolas, having grown up around his woodland elven kin who are immortal, is unaccustomed to experiencing death and therefore unable to process and share his companions’ grief (the actor, Orlando Bloom, notes in the DVD commentary that this is what he was trying to convey). Without having previously experienced much bereavement, Legolas struggles to empathize with his companions.
Hebraic Insights into the Limits of Empathy
Long before the benefit of modern neuroscientific studies, Hebraic thought captured this model of how empathy works, most notably in the Proverb that opens this article: “Like water face to face, thus the heart of man to man.” This Proverb explains how, when you try to empathize with someone else, you just find yourself reflected back on yourself—much like when you look at your reflection in a pool. In other words, when you try to look into another’s heart, you aren’t actually entering into that other person’s heart; instead, you’re using your own experiences to try to understand what they are experiencing. Our entire capacity for empathy, of trying to look into the hearts of others, really just involves looking into our own hearts. Similarly, another Proverb relates how, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Prov. 14:10). This Proverb also illustrates how we aren’t capable of “feeling our way into” another person’s experience in order to wholly experience their bitterness or their joy. At best, we will be able to experience certain feelings on their behalf—or, if we have had similar enough experiences to what they are going through, we will be able to use our own previous experiences to fairly accurately represent what they are going through. Nevertheless, we will never be able to enter fully into the experience known only to them.
These Proverbs and the neuroscientific evidence remind us of the limits of our power of empathy: we are never able to fully enter into another’s experience to wholly know their bitterness or their joy. At best, we may be able to approximate a representation of their experiences using our previous experiences; at worst, we end up relying on dissimilar experiences of our own and misunderstand their experiences.
Such are the limits of empathy, and they form a sobering reminder that we need to be very careful to avoid an over-readiness to “feel our way” into the experiences of others. We must be especially careful where this concerns marginalized and vulnerable groups, where the costs to them of others misunderstanding their experiences compound the injustices they are experiencing. Certainly, the sweeping pronouncements about how certain vulnerable groups just need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” made by individuals without those experiences, often betrays the fact that those individuals have a deeply flawed understanding of the reality of such experiences of marginalization, where “bootstrapping” is often impossible. Rather than first listening and trying to understand, the proponents of “bootstrapping” instead use their own previous experiences, framework, perspectives, and priors in evaluating the situation.
This often leads to unfair practices and policies for these marginalized groups, but it also denies these marginalized groups and individuals from being able to testify truly about their experiences without those testimonies being overruled, silenced, or corrupted by the retelling of others. This silencing or corruption of the testimony may, in turn, affect how additional others understand these marginalized groups, or even how these groups understand their own experiences, as the outside voices inaccurately retelling their experiences makes them doubt their own interpretations of what they have gone through. These kinds of concerns involve what the philosopher Miranda Fricker refers to as “epistemic injustice” (more specifically, “testimonial injustice”).6Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. They are injustices with regards to an individual’s right to tell true testimony about their experience and have it heard and weighed fairly, and for others to be able to hear these true testimonies without interference.
Given these limits upon empathy, how can empathy be used responsibly?
‘Remember That You Were Slaves in Egypt’: The Hebraic Revolution in Ethics
Once again, we turn to Hebraic thought, for it is their insight about community built on empathy in shared trauma that drives one of the most unique ethical innovations made by Hebraic morality. In fact, Dr. Jeremiah Unterman has argued that Hebraic thought revolutionized ethics through its innovative focus on immigration policy and on the most vulnerable in society (e.g. Ex. 22:21-22, Lev, 19:33-34, etc.).7Unterman, J. (2017). Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. But if we home in on the mechanics of how this revolution was made possible, we will see that it involved harnessing the above insights about the nature of empathy. Indeed, in Deuteronomy 24, the Israelites are commanded to protect the rights of the foreigner and to allow for the provision of the material well-being of the most vulnerable in society (the foreigner in the land, the widow, and the orphan), by allowing them to glean leftovers from the harvest and by the prohibition of taking the widow’s clothing as a pledge (vv. 17 & 19). The justification for this command is that the Israelites are to “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (vv. 18 and 22). Similarly, in Deuteronomy 5, the Israelites are commanded to let enslaved persons dwelling among them rest on the Sabbath (v. 14), and in Deuteronomy 15, they are commanded to “provide liberally” for enslaved persons whom they are setting free (vv. 12–14), because they are to remember that they, themselves, were enslaved persons in Egypt (Deut. 5:15; 15:15).
The last remaining verse that follows this structure is the most striking, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). The commandment to not oppress the foreigners dwelling among the Israelites is once again accompanied by an appeal to empathy that is intended to provide the motivation necessary to keep the commandment: the Israelites are reminded that they know the experience of being a foreigner, and of being an oppressed foreigner in particular, which enables them to see into the “heart” (nephesh, the soul or the inner being of a person) of the foreigner. This should create a resonance between the Israelite and the foreigner, forming a sense of community and understanding through similar (and therefore shared) experiences of the trauma of displacement and the threat of oppression, driving the motivation to help the foreigner.
Consequently, what is here revealed is that the commands to protect and provide for the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and the enslaved person would not have, on their own, been enough to bring about this “Revolution in Ethics.” The necessary motivation comes from connecting the command to the Israelites’ own experience, leading to community formation through empathy via shared trauma. As the Israelites are commanded to reflect on their experience of bondage, displacement, and marginalization, they come to connect with those who are currently living that experience of bondage, displacement, and marginalization, motivating the Israelites to provide for these vulnerable individuals.
How Empathy Fails
It is worth mentioning at this point one further implication of the line I am suggesting here: without the experience of bondage, displacement, and marginalization – that is to say, without the experience of having been “Slaves in Egypt” – it will be significantly more challenging to come to feel this kind of community with those experiencing bondage, displacement, and marginalization and be motivated to help. This, undoubtedly, goes a long way toward explaining the failure of so many American churches in positions of privilege and of so many prominent Christian figures in positions of power, to be motivated to support policies that would protect the marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed. Indeed, the command to provide for the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and those in bondage has never gone away, but is encapsulated in Jesus’ commandments to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mk. 12:31) and to provide for “the least of these” (Mt. 24:31–46).
America’s laws may no longer contain a legal status of “enslavement,” but there are other forms of bondage that afflict those dwelling among us: to name just a small handful, the internment of refugee children in dangerous conditions along with forced separation from their parents, systems of predatory loans that force Black families into continual bondage, inequitable access to the same standards of healthcare, and so on. It is unsurprising, then, that many churches and individuals in positions to help or intervene, exhibit a failure to be appropriately moved by these experiences, and a corresponding failure of motivation to work to help these individuals. Without having themselves been “Slaves in Egypt” or vulnerable in some deep and analogous way (indeed on the contrary, in many cases benefiting from the exploitation of those who were and are “Slaves in Egypt”), they bear the wrong kind of frame of reference that might be able to harness the power of empathy to provide understanding, a sense of community, or the motivation to help the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and those in bondage.
This is not to say that building a sense of community and the motivation to help is not possible, only that it is more challenging without being able to harness the power of empathy. Consequently, this situation helps to explain much of what has gone wrong with the priorities of many Christian churches and individuals in America today.
Harnessing the Power of Empathy
How can we, like the Israelites were commanded, use empathy effectively? The first step is to pause and consider whether our previous experiences are similar enough for empathy to be able to yield an accurate understanding. If our previous experiences are not similar enough, then we should be very cautious with our use of empathy to understand the experience being described to us, to ensure that we aren’t misrepresenting and misunderstanding features of the other person’s testimony. Exercising caution in such cases means that we must maintain vigilance to ensure that we aren’t projecting too much of our own previous experiences and frame of reference onto the experience we are imagining. Furthermore, we must remember that some experiences, and some features of some experiences, will—quite literally—be unimaginable to ourselves. True empathy, then, does not involve an over-readiness to try to project ourselves into others’ experiences, but instead involves the wisdom to know when empathy is not possible, to take a step back, and to provide space for the other person to testify about their experience without unjust interference.
If, however, your previous experiences are very similar to those of another, a high degree of accurate empathy is possible. These are cases in which a heart’s own bitterness or joy closely matches the bitterness or joy of another. While it may not be possible to fully enter into another’s experience, at least there can be a high level of shared understanding. For example, a major priority of women’s rights movements has been to provide women with spaces in which to speak freely about their experiences, in order to be able to fully testify about injustices they have experienced and to process them, without opposing voices putting pressure on them (and others) to reinterpret these experiences in ways that would minimize the perceptions of injustices they have suffered. This is why communities built around shared trauma are so crucial: there is something deeply healing about being around people who have had similar experiences, and so are able to empathize to a high degree with one’s experience. It is this insight that underlies the existence of support groups attended by veterans, the bereaved, and survivors of various kinds. There is an especially deep kind of community that can be built this way, and which can even motivate helping responses, as it did for the Israelites long ago.
Finally, there are also creative ways in which we can use analogous aspects between different experiences to harness empathy to serve certain important ends. Indeed, in a brilliant maneuver, the prophet Nathan leverages a powerful analogy to stir up empathy in King David—right before he calls the King to account for murder: in 2 Samuel 12, Nathan uses a vivid parable to rebuke David for taking Uriah’s wife and having him killed. While David was obviously unable to fully empathize with many of the deepest aspects of Uriah’s experience (to say nothing of empathizing with Bathsheba’s), David was able to empathize with enough of the analogous aspects from the parable to at least be able to come to realize that he had sinned.
An understanding of how empathy works, as revealed by both these Hebraic and neuroscientific insights, allows us to avoid its improper use and to harness its power for building community and the motivation to help the vulnerable. Indeed, where our previous experiences match those of another, we will be able to simulate and share a fairly accurate representation of their experiences. This can ground a powerful and deep sense of connection and community, and motivate one to help that individual or the group to which they belong. In other cases, we may be able to draw on analogous aspects of various experiences to harness the power of empathy to teach important lessons.8As with the story of Nathan and David in 2 Samuel 12. If, however, our own previous experiences do not closely approximate those of another individual, then we should exercise particular care around trying to use empathy to understand their experiences. If we fail to exercise appropriate caution, we risk misunderstanding and misrepresenting their experiences. This may contribute not only to the misunderstandings of others, but also lead to the original individual coming to reinterpret and misunderstand what they themselves have actually gone through. These issues of epistemic injustice are deeply serious and reveal that in such situations, we would do well to listen and carefully consider the testimony being provided to us, rather than trying to understand it by projecting our way into those experiences.
1. Alter, R. (2018). The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: WW Norton.
2. Mieder, W. (2009). “Yes we Can”: Barack Obama’s proverbial rhetoric. New York: Peter Lang. pp. 300–301
3. Buckner, R. L., & Carroll, D. C. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 49–57.; Spreng, R. N., Mar, R. A., & Kim, A. S. (2009). The common neural basis of autobiographical memory, prospection, navigation, theory of mind and the default mode: A quantitative meta-analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21, 489–510.
4. Hassabis, D., & Maguire, E. A. (2007). Deconstructing episodic memory with construction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 299–306.
5. Ciaramelli, E., Bernardi, F., & Moscovitch, M. (2013). Individualized Theory of Mind (iToM): When Memory Modulates Empathy. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 4.
6. Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
7. Unterman, J. (2017). Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
8. As with the story of Nathan and David in 2 Samuel 12.
Subscribe now to receive periodic updates from the CHT.