The Five Types of Empathy

Empathy and the lack there of come up in many DSM-5 descriptions. What though is empathy?

Empathy 1 – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

Merriam Webster – Accessed 11 June 2019

Types of Empathy

There are five types of empathy. They are cognitive empathy, compassionate empathy, emotional empathy, somatic empathy, and spiritual empathy. The first three are the best understood. There are many papers about them. The last two are less studied.

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another’s perspective or mental state. Cognitive Empathy is sometimes called Theory of Mind. Some have a natural talent for it. Some have limited natural ability. It is a type of empathy that we can learn and work to improve like penmanship and playing the piano. While not everyone will be a natural genius, daily practice can help everyone be better.

Compassionate empathy

Compassionate empathy is the urge to act on our understanding of someone else’s emotional state. That is, it is what moves us to show charity and compassion for others by acting to help them. I suspect that this is deeply linked to our acceptance of our own vulnerability.

Emotional empathy

Emotional empathy is feeling someone else’s emotions. When we see someone crying, it makes us sad. When we see someone laughing in joy, it makes us happy. A good deal of this may be heritable and tied to brain function. Brain function is not static though. Thus, capacity for emotional empathy might change for better or worse over time.

Somatic empathy

Somatic empathy is feeling someone else’s physical state. When we see them fall, we feel the pain of a fall. When we are with a hyper person, we feel hyper. This is one of the less studied types of empathy.

Spiritual empathy

Spiritual empathy is like enlightenment in eastern traditions. Its definition in published research though is a little more complex. It is linked to the concept of spiritual intelligence. It might be the ability to connect to a spiritual state outside of ourselves. Regardless, it is thought to be improved by meditation.


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