How do I improve my cognitive empathy

Affective and cognitive empathy are two sides of the same coin

In general, it makes sense to distinguish between phenomena that we are trying to investigate and understand. This distinction is also didactically useful and it usually helps teaching practice. At some point, however, breaking down a phenomenon or process into its sub-components can get in the way of deeper understanding. This is exactly the problem we have with empathy.

While empathy is an umbrella term that encompasses many different forms of behavior and mental states, intuitively it does not make sense to distinguish between two main types of empathy: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. These two forms of empathy correspond to the classic psychological dichotomy between the type 1 and type 2 process, whereby the type 1 process is more automatic, pre-reflective, stimulus-driven and inflexible, and the type 2 process is more likely laborious, slow, deliberate, but flexible.

A classic example of emotional empathy is the case of emotional 'contagion'. Emotions spread here between interacting people pretty much like viruses in a pre-reflective, semi-automatic form. On the other hand, cognitive empathy requires a much more elaborate process of "seeing" things from another person's perspective, accepting another person's point of view, and understanding other people's motives in order to feel and think like someone else.

These two types of empathy have been described many times in the psychological literature and have also inspired a number of recent neuropsychological research. At first glance, the neurosciences of empathy seem to agree with the psychological distinction between emotional and cognitive empathy. Indeed, literature review studies of the neuroscience of empathy reveal largely discrete neural systems that appear to be associated with emotional and cognitive empathy.

Still, this dichotomy in psychology and neuroscience is likely just an illusion. Our seemingly rational and controlled empathic and prosocial decisions are also likely to be influenced by pre-reflective, more automatic, emotional processes. On the other hand, pre-reflective emotions are likely to be continually held in check by cognitive control mechanisms that are typically used for cognitive empathy. In other words, the dichotomy between type 1 and type 2 psychological processes in empathy is probably better captured with the description of a continuous interaction between one corresponding from the bottom up (e.g. emotional empathy) and one corresponding from the top down (e.g. cognitive empathy) Processing stream.

These are continuous interactions between bottom up and top down empathic processes required through the continuous interaction between the seemingly separated neural systems for emotional and cognitive empathy. These neural systems are indeed strongly interconnected, because even when we find ourselves in situations that seemingly ask for only one of the forms of empathy, continuous interactions between neural systems for both types of empathy - mediated by brain connections - still come into play called to activate emotional and cognitive skills in order to empathize with others.