The DOES Model: Empathy


Empathy is a valuable research tool and not just a way to connect with others. It allows you to investigate differences and learn more about them.

Dr. Aron confirms the value of empathy in her research:

In another study, by Bianca Acevedo, sensitive and non-sensitive persons looked at photos of both strangers and loved ones expressing happiness, sadness, or a neutral feeling. In all situations, when there was emotion in the photo, sensitive persons showed increased activation in the insula, but also more activity in their mirror neuron system, especially when looking at the happy faces of loved ones… Not only do these amazing neurons help us learn through imitation, but in conjunction with the other areas of the brain that were especially active for HSPs, they help us know others’ intentions and how they feel. Hence they are largely responsible for the universal human capacity for empathy. We do not just know how someone else feels, but actually feel that way ourselves to some extent. This is very familiar to sensitive people. Anyone’s sad faces tended to generate more activity in these mirror neurons in HSPs than others. When seeing photos of their loved ones being unhappy, sensitive persons also showed more activation in areas suggesting they wanted to do something, to act, even more than in areas involving empathy (perhaps we learn to cool down our intense empathy in order to help). But overall, brain activation indicating empathy was stronger in HSPs than non-HSPs when looking at photos of faces showing strong emotion of any type. [1]

This research is important because HSPs are often thought of as people pleasers or codependents. Given the natural brain activity around happiness and sadness that sensitive people have, they are going to want to help those around them who are sad.

Managing Empathy

Unfortunately, this natural tendency is not always respected and sensitive people can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. That is one issue. HSPs also have to be mindful that they have to manage their energy and energy draining situations. So there are limits to what a sensitive person can do. Sometimes letting others solve their own problems is a wise decision.

[1] Author’s Note, 2012 for The Highly Sensitive Person, 9/6/2012, link.