It is our tendency to wince when a child falls and scrapes a knee or to jump with elation when a runner breaks through the finish line. We are quick to empathize with others. Empathy is the experience of identifying with and understanding another person’s experiences, thoughts, feelings, emotions, or attitudes. It allows us the adventure of seeing through someone else’s eyes or placing ourselves in their shoes. Empathy is often confused with sympathy, feelings of sorrow for someone else’s troubles or grief. Unlike sympathy, empathy involves identification with positive feelings as well as negative ones. Though few would deny that empathy exists, one key question about empathy remains: Are we born with empathy for others, or is it learned? 

Many scientists believe that empathy is an automatic response—a complex biological process that cannot be taught, imitated, or forced. Some studies suggest that empathy is so biologically ingrained that even animals are capable of experiencing and expressing it. In a 1964 experiment, Rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to them once they realized it delivered a shock to their companions. Dogs have been known to show concern when their owners cry. Some scientists argue that if animals like monkeys and dogs show empathy, empathy must be an automatic, biological response. 

Others believe that empathy is a learned behavior. They argue some people may have a greater natural capacity for empathy than others, but everyone is capable of improving their ability to empathize. Neuroscientists know that there is a specific part of our brains that triggers empathy: the right supramarginal gyrus. Neuroscientists suggest that since the brain is a muscle, when people practice empathizing and work the right supramarginal gyrus, they become more effective at empathizing. 

In this unit, you will read fictional stories, poetry, nonfiction narratives, speeches, and newspaper articles about people showing compassion for others. As you read, write, research, and think about the selections, you will consider how empathy plays into your experience and whether you think empathy is an automatic response or learned behavior.