Nearly all explanations of empathy rely on the words compassion and sympathy to help show how empathy can, or should, be used.  At the lowest level is sympathy-- sympathy is simply the interpersonal resonance typically created by the mirror cells.  When the feelings of sympathy are developed into thought, when there is the idea that intentions will be formed from sympathetic feelings, concrete empathy forms.  Beneficial, and sometimes mutual, feeling transforms into something useful to the world around us all --the people around us, and the environment.  Empathy that moves away from sympathy in the higher levels of the mind, and then back out into the real world can transform the world.  Sometimes this manifestation is thought of as compassion, though compassion is also thought of as an emotion like sympathy.

"If empathy can be conceived as a process that permits a temporary “jumping” out of self to affectively identify with non-self benignly, then compassion may be the emotion that resonates self with non-self to retain the expansions of external horizons."   (Borysenko)


Compassion may describe higher thought and action, yet it is closely connected to the body; the activity of our immune system has been shown to react to compassion showing that compassion is very linked to basic philosophy.


"While Western psychology has concentrated on understanding “mental” and “emotional” pathological processes, we have much to learn about our most evolved biocognitions."  (Borysenko)  

Compassion is known to be closely connected to the very basis of life and health: our cells react to our feelings of compassion.  This is what Borysenko means when she says we must learn about biocognitions; this is where empathy directly interacts with health.  Levels of antibodies with in the human can increase or drop nearly instantaneously depending on the level compassion we feel.  I give the full detail of the reports to show how involved the research is in connecting compassion and the immune system; different types of emotions can be connected to different aspects of the immune system.  Scientists can predict responses in immune systems in relation to empathy with uncanny predictability.

Dr. McClelland was one of the most renowned experts in human motivation—the need for achievement and power in particular. But toward the end of his life, he defined another human motivation—that of caritas, or lovingkindness. As a postdoc, one of my projects was to find a film that would create feelings of compassion and lovingkindness in the laboratory. We finally settled on a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa. Dr. Mclelland and his colleagues were able to show that an antibody in saliva -- which protects us from colds, flu, and tooth decay-- increased markedly after watching the film. After about an hour, as habitual forms of thinking replaced the loving state produced by the film, antibody levels fell to the baseline level. But when the volunteers were then asked to think about a personal time when they had felt authentic compassion, antibody levels rose once again. Dwelling on the positive not only changes your mind—it changes your body as well. (Borysenko)


There may be an evolutionary purpose for complex emotions such as empathy and compassion when one considers that subjects who simply observe the expression of those emotions (e.g., watching a video of Mother Teresa tending to her patients) show increased levels of immunoglobulin type A antibodies (Martinez from McClelland)

It is interesting to note that although IgA levels increase when subjects are exposed to acts of compassion, levels drop after less than an hour in subjects with a cynical mindset, whereas subjects who hold a more optimistic view of the world maintain gains significantly longer (McClelland, 1989). IgA decreases associated with cynical interpretations of compassionate acts may exemplify temporary expansions of external horizons due to unresolved aversive bioethical codes. Biocultural interpretations may also affect contextual relevance at a cytocultural level -- defined as the idiosyncratic history shared by a group of cells (Martinez and Santiago, 2001). It appears that cells may seek contextual relevance based on intercellular history. For example, Solomon, Kemeny, and Temoshok (1991) found that simpler but phylogenetically older immune cells such as natural killer cells (NK) respond to global social behavior (assertiveness) whereas more complex but phylogenetically younger immune cells such as T cells (CD4 and CD8) respond to more specific circumstances (reduced anxiety about illness). Phylogenetically older immune cells may have developed greater diversity due to a longer history of contextual challenges (Martinez from Solomon)