An empath is a person who apparently recognizes, understands and possibly feels the emotions of another person or possibly living beings and organisms, such as animals and plants. Different schools of thought variously try to explain the phenomenon of empathy.
Psychologists say that the empath physiologically copies another person’s emotions based on observable cues. Religious perspectives believe the empath feels another’s emotions due to a mystical connection among all people (some mystical schools would extend this to all living beings, organisms and even inorganic material like rocks, gems, and stones).
In contrast to the psychological explanation for empathy, some mystics claim to know another’s thoughts and/or feel their emotions – called the reading of hearts in Catholicism – near or at a distance with no observable cues.
Reading of Hearts. The knowledge of the secret thoughts of others or of their internal state without communication is known as reading of hearts. The certain knowledge of the secret thoughts of others is truly super-natural, since the devil has no access to the spiritual faculties of men and no human being can know the mind of another unless it is in some way communicated. But knowledge of the secrets of another’s heart may be conjectured by the devil and transmitted to a person, or they may be surmised by a deluded individual who takes his conjectures to be supernatural illuminations.¹
Estimating the prevalence of the gift of empathy is difficult for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being that many people wouldn’t want to talk about their empathetic abilities for fear of ridicule. Not surprising then that the psychiatrist Carl Jung said that most individuals are unwilling to talk about their experience of the paranormal because of potential repercussions.
Empaths are differentiated from psychopaths. Apparently psychopaths often can sense another person’s feelings but try to use that ability to manipulate and exploit. Empaths, on the other hand, try to use their perceptions for the common good.
The idea of empathy has been thoroughly explored in science fiction and fantasy. At top right of this entry we see a scene from the 1968 Star Trek episode called The Empath.²
¹ AUMANN, J. “Mystical Phenomena.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 105-109. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.
² Fair dealing / fair use rationale of this low-res copyright image.
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