Compassion and empathy. We hear these two words a lot these days. If only the world had more compassion and empathy, we’d maybe finally have peace on Earth. And this is very true in a way, but I think there is an important difference between these two words, which is what I want to talk about in this post. Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Compassion is “a sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Empathy allows us to feel what another is feeling, which in turn naturally tends to produce compassion. Although often seen as a trait strictly unique to humans, empathy has actually been around much longer than humans have. To understand this, let’s take a quick look at the (rough) evolution of the brain.
The nervous system of life on Earth evolved upwards and outwards, beginning with the early reptilian brain, then adding on the mammalian brain or limbic system, and finally getting us to where we humans are now with the neocortex. We’re gonna skip past the reptilian brain (it’s way underappreciated; good thing it evolved before the ability to be offended) and instead go straight to the mammalian brain, or the limbic system.
The Limbic System and Empathy:
The limbic system, also referred to as the paleomammalian cortex or mammalian brain, is the part of the brain that evolved with the first mammals (roughly speaking). It supports functions like emotion, memory, motivation, social behavior, and sense of smell. 
The limbic system also includes the anterior insula cortex, which is now thought to be the region of the brain responsible for empathic feeling.  Remember that this is part of the mammalian brain, meaning that most mammals actually possess the ability to empathize. In fact, this ability is not strictly even limited to mammals, as many birds also have some semblance of empathy as well.
There is a huge evolutionary advantage that comes with the ability to empathize with others. If you’re a buffalo in a huge herd of other buffalo and those around you start freaking out and running for their lives, you’re probably best served following suit, lest you stay behind and expose yourself to whatever danger is obviously imminent. But you’re a buffalo and can’t really rationalize it like that. All you know is that you start feeling the fear that everyone else in your herd is feeling, and that makes you want to run. A more relatable example would be a mother’s ability to feel what her offspring is feeling, better equipping her to tend to that offspring’s needs. Cooperation of a family or tribe is also essential for survival and procreation, and this can be optimized if individual members are able to feel for and care for one another.
Empathy is tricky though. It gives us the ability to feel what others are feeling, but starting with those who are most like us. Those most like ourselves are the creatures we view as being the most trustworthy. And this makes sense. Members of my family or tribe are those I’d be wise to trust and cooperate with in order to survive. But outsiders? Strangers? I don’t know much about them, and they don’t look or act like me or my tribe, so I am naturally put off by these people. Their unfamiliarity makes it almost impossible for me to empathize with them, so my brain naturally perceives them as being less valuable, even less conscious creatures.
Furthermore, this principle doesn’t stop at our own species. We tend to empathize most with animals when they exhibit the most human-like behavior. This way, we view them as more conscious creatures capable of experiencing joy and suffering, pain and pleasure. The less similar to us we perceive animals to be, the less empathetic we are when it comes to their suffering. We can feel the joy of our dog running around excitedly when we come home at the end of the day more so than we can the pain of the ant we just smushed on the kitchen counter. We are likely to be troubled witnessing the suffering of a dolphin or an elephant, but a cockroach or a spider?
As long as we don’t perceive conscious suffering in a way that we can relate to as an individual human being, then we don’t suffer. The same could be said for positive emotions as well. Our empathy only extends to those we can relate to in some way as fellow conscious creatures. The less we are able to do so, the less we care.
This aspect of empathy was very useful to have throughout all of evolutionary history. It kept us safe and helped us survive long enough to reproduce. But more recently it has been the cause of significant suffering and strife. Racism and bigotry is fueled by this prejudiced nature of empathy. We don’t like you because you don’t look like us. We don’t like you cause you don’t think like us. At best, we’re indifferent to you because you’re not like us.
Today, we are rapidly advancing toward a global society, one in which fewer and fewer people are strangers or outsiders to us. Thus, it makes perfect sense that we have made immense strides toward eradicating racial and cultural discrimination in the last few centuries, and that we continue to do so today. The more global we become, the less we can afford to be prejudiced against people or ideas who are otherwise considered to be really “out there.”
However, this doesn’t mean that we will ever actually feel for every single human being on the planet as we would for a close friend or family member. For example, consider the following scenario. Suppose you, we’ll assume an average American, hear on the news that five thousand people died overnight in a tsunami in Indonesia. Of course, you reason, that’s absolutely horrific and terrible. But do you really truly feel the related suffering in proportion to the level of tragedy? On the contrary; your day will probably go on as usual, and in a day or two you’ll hardly think of it at all. On the other hand, imagine you learn that your best friend’s one-year-old daughter drowned in the bathtub today, a horrifying accident. Your whole world will be rocked without you having to think about it in the slightest. Your routine day dissolves in the wake of such knowledge. Yet which of these two scenarios is the greater tragedy? Surely, five thousand human beings losing their lives produces more suffering than a single infant losing a life, right? And yet your brain is not wired to believe this at an emotional level. You feel nothing for the loved ones of the five thousand people in Indonesia relative to what you feel for your best friend right now.
This example outlines the dissonance between empathy and reason. Although we reason that five thousand lives are of greater consequence than one human life, our empathic response makes us feel more for the individual, the personal, the one that’s more tangible and relatable. Most advertisers and charities know this about the human psyche, which is why, rather than push facts like, “Half a million people die from malaria every year,” they’ll say something more like, “This is Melina. At just three years of age she lost her mother to malaria.” The first is one that carries more weight for our rational mind, but we don’t feel it to be as tragic as we do the second example.
The reach of empathy is simply not plastic enough in our brains to ever allow us to truly feel the suffering of five thousand people at once, nor should we want it to be. If we truly felt the suffering of everyone on the planet we came in contact with, whether it be through the news, social media, or actual personal acquaintances, we would probably quite literally go insane. But if empathy naturally runs out the further from us a given situation gets, how then are we supposed to respond to events and circumstances outside of our empathic circle?
The answer lies with the next layer of the brain, the neocortex.
The Neocortex and Reason-Based Compassion:
The outermost layer of the brain is the neocortex, also called the neomammalian cortex. It is the layer of the brain seen in “newer” mammals and is most heavily developed in humans. It supports higher-order brain functions like cognition, sensory perception, generation of motor commands, logical and spatial reasoning, abstract thought, language, and imagination.  
The neocortex, in contrast with the limbic system, allows us to self-reflect and to challenge the reasoning behind the thoughts and actions of both ourselves and others. It enables us to learn about and understand the very nature of our own mind, such as our ability to empathize. It is what gives us the ability to see that five thousand people losing their lives is a greater tragedy than a single life lost, even if this is at odds with what our limbic system is telling us. And it is what gives us the ability to act with compassion even after empathy has run out.
In the case of your best friend’s daughter, you don’t have to do much rationalizing about how to respond, since empathy allows you to legitimately feel your best friend’s pain, prompting you to act accordingly. But in the case of tsunami victims in Indonesia, it is much less empathy that motivates you to donate to relief funds, since you are unable to sincerely feel the depth of their suffering. Rather, it is a reason-based compassion arising from the neocortex that’s the primary driving force in this scenario. We have the ability to reason through any given situation and, regardless of how we happen to feel at an emotional level, ask ourselves, how can I contribute to this situation in a way that will improve the well-being of conscious creatures? And it is this sort of rational compassion that enables us to act in any situation when empathy is out of reach.
So all this being said, perhaps what we need more of in an increasingly global society is not empathy, but reason. Although empathy certainly has a very useful place in our lives, and does indeed motivate acts of compassion, it does so in a significantly limited, prejudiced, and irrational manner. What we really mean when we say the world needs more empathy is that the world needs a further-reaching empathy, but as we’ve seen in this post, far-reaching is simply not in the nature of empathy. If we instead start training compassion to be ruled by reason, rather than empathy, then my hope is that we will find ourselves with the capacity to act compassionately towards others regardless of the degree to which we happen to empathize with them.
That, I would argue, is a future worth pursuing.
Fun fact #1: The close proximity of these functions is why smells are so good at triggering long-term memories and the emotions associated with those memories. It is also why emotion so heavily influences the formation of long-term memories. ↩
Fun fact #2: The forwardmost region of the neocortex (the prefrontal cortex) is the part of your brain that gives you the sense that you are “you.” ↩
Fun fact #3: Oceanic dolphins actually have more neocortical neurons (nerve cells in the neocortex) than any other mammal, including humans. ↩