The Neuroscience of Empathy: Personal Experience, Memory, and Two Halves of the Brain

The exuberant laughter of your favorite character sneaks between the printed words of a book and slips off the page into your mind. Suddenly, you catch yourself grinning.

A rupture of giggles tumbles from a child’s beaming face as her mother tosses her into the air. Quietly observing, you’re transported to a place of yearning and safety buried within your own childhood dreams.

The passionate exclamations of a student discovering a new theory unearth and reawaken dormant ideas in your mind discarded too quickly, aged with suppression and time.

The stories we read and hear claim our attention. However, some possess a residue of permanency that others do not.

Try as we might to shake the thoughts and feelings which accompany them, we cannot. They seem to have snuck through the back door, and made themselves quite at home within our walls, within our own stories.

Why is that?

It all relates back to the process of empathy. But in order to understand empathy, we need to take a brief detour through the human brain.

The words of a story are saturated with meaning thanks to the active, concerted efforts of the left and right cerebral hemispheres.

These two halves of the brain are crucial for the telling and receiving of stories. While each hemisphere specializes in different functions, they work together with irreplaceable cohesion in an ever-evolving dance. We cannot utilize one to the exclusion of the other. Together, they identify, process, and combine words with various emotions and memories, producing a rich and distinct response to everything we hear and read.

While the left hemisphere is largely responsible for linear, analytical thinking, the right half pursues synthesis through context and imagery.

As the left hemisphere reads and identifies the words of a sentence, the right hemisphere adds context to the words. The right hemisphere ensures a sentence does not simply read as a collection of flat, 2-D words. Like filling a balloon with helium, the right side of your brain lifts words off the ground and gives them shape.

For instance, as you read the previous sentence your mind’s eye most likely pictured a balloon filling up with air. If the left hemisphere attempted to comprehend the sentence alone, you would merely have a pile of words; the metaphoric meaning would read as gibberish. But when the left and right hemispheres work together, a vibrant image floats into your mental vision and the sentence takes on a new richness.

Your brain’s ability to comprehend a metaphor, for instance, is directly related to your experience.

You are able to envision a floating balloon because, chances are, you have either seen, read, or heard about one. Memory and experience lie at the core of empathy’s mysterious dance.

As American-French neuroscientist Jean Decety writes, “This unconscious empathetic responding can be modulated by various situational and dispositional variables.” These variables are all the specific smells, tastes, feelings, interactions, and events stored in your memory. They shape and color the way you use, hear, and interpret words; they create context.

This is why the literal meaning of a sentence may read similarly across people, but people may interpret the tone and underlying meaning differently.

While experiences differ amongst people, they are also responsible for creating connection. For instance, when someone tells you a story about feeling shame, your brain will activate the respective cerebral regions responsible for housing your own past encounters with shame. Resultantly, as you listen, your brain will simulate personal feelings of shame. In this regard, the brain does not always distinguish a first hand experience from hearing about or perceiving someone else’s.8

This is why individually relevant impact stories matter and why their presentation is critical.

In order to effectively convey a story to a donor, it is helpful to understand their background and the context from which they operate. The more a particular story resonates with a donor, the higher the donor’s level of empathy will be.

That’s one of the reasons Mythos has integrated survey capabilities–so you can organize and match individually relevant stories to donors. From content tagging features to survey logic and conditional questions, Mythos is prepared to help you cultivate and organize memorable beneficiary impact stories.

8 It is important to note that while I have offered an abridged version here, the neural happenings involved in the process of empathy are quote complex and their degree of receptivity varies widely across people. For an expanded understanding of why some people are more empathetic than others, we recommend The Social Neuroscience of Empathy.

About the Author

Lindsay Isler

Lindsay is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she received a Bachelor’s in English Literature.