Brick Johnstone, University of Missouri – Empathy and Sense of Self


Being more self-involved may also mean being more empathetic.

Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, discusses his research into empathy and self-awareness.

Johnstone recently returned from Oxford University, where he spent the summer studying the intersection of science and religion. Prior to his time at Oxford, Johnstone completed a nine-month fellowship at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, where he explored religious experience and moral identity. Johnstone recently served as a contributing expert for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, “Traumatic Brain Injury in the United States: Epidemiology and Rehabilitation,” which was presented to Congress.

Empathy and Sense of Self


Empathy, or the ability to identify with others’ feelings, often is considered an important relational skill. My colleagues and I hypothesized that in order for individuals to be empathetic, they needed to be selfless. However, we found just the opposite: individuals who were more self-aware had higher levels of empathy.

My previous research found that the less individuals focus on themselves, the more able they are to connect with a higher power and have a spiritual experience. Our current research also found selflessness makes individuals more forgiving. We thought the same would be true for empathy, but that wasn’t the case.

For the study, we gave neuropsychological evaluations to 31 individuals with traumatic brain injury. The participants also answered questions about empathy. Twenty participants also received MRI scans of their brains.

The results showed that individuals who were more empathetic appeared to have increased functioning in their right parietal lobe, which is the area of the brain associated with self-orientation. Additionally, greater empathy was associated with increased volume of the insular cortex, which perceives information about the internal states of the body, or self.
One possible explanation, according to previous literature, is that individuals have to understand themselves before they can understand others’ situations and feel what others feel. If individuals don’t have a strong sense of self, it’s hard for them to know what the other person is going through or be able to feel what they are feeling.

Empathy is a more complex process than the study conclusions suggest, but the study provides a basis for future research on how self-orientation relates to empathy. Creating interventions that help individuals develop their sense of self may help them become more empathetic.

  1. Christine Goodrich

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