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Hyper empathy syndrome affects both men and women, causing increased sensitivity to the emotions of other people. For those living with hyper empathy syndrome, everyday life is invaded by increased levels of emotional perception and heightened awareness.

Multiple cases of hyper empathy have been reported in recent years and much research, debate, and analysis of the condition has arisen. Neuroscientists and psychologists have keenly been exploring patients who have presented with hyper empathy and the investigations and studies surrounding the subject are groundbreaking.

Hyper empathy manifests as the highly tuned ability to feel others' emotions, including people you observe on TV and characters from books. People with hyper empathy syndrome often process the feelings of others as their own and experience them very intensely.

To determine whether you suffer from hyper empathy syndrome, it helps first to understand empathy. Empathy allows us to understand the feelings of those around us and therefore, shift our patterns of behavior to accommodate for another’s emotional state. In addition to understanding, empathy allows us to experience what another is subjectively feeling, without confusing their feelings for our own. It’s probable that empathy evolved as a way of bonding between parent and offspring. It would have allowed us to understand the needs of our young, contributing in part, to their survival. But, is it possible to have too much empathy when you are extremely sensitive to the emotions and energy of other people?

Humans have evolved with five senses and empathy could be considered a sixth sense. There are many situations in which being empathetic is advantageous as it allows us to adapt to potentially volatile situations and to form stable relationships. However, being overly sensitive to other people’s emotional and physical states has its drawbacks.

The Mechanics Of Empathy 

Our empathetic ability can be categorized into two systems:

  • Firstly, emotion recognition and emotional contagion
  • Secondly, cognitive empathy [1

Both neural processes equate to our ability to empathize with others. Emotion recognition and emotional contagion are designed to allow us to have a sense of understanding when it comes to someone else’s feelings. Essentially, these systems enable us to experience feelings and emotions of our own based on the feelings of the person with which we interact.

The behavior of another person is viewed and perceived and this causes us to form internal representations of their conduct; it’s a way of recognizing their emotions and behavior in ourselves, which is then processed by the motor areas of the brain [2]. Conversely, cognitive empathy is our ability to understand another’s emotion without experiencing the feelings, and this can be seen in our ability to recognize facial expressions [3].

When viewing and perceiving another’s feelings and behavior, the part of the brain engaged and responsible is the primary motor cortex, which creates neural impulses that control movement [4]. Surprisingly, the primary motor cortex also activates mirroring neurons [5]. It is the mirror neurons which can signify hyper empathy.

Signs Of Hyper Empathy Syndrome

A small but significant study recently proved that it is possible to register the sensation of touch on one’s anesthetized arm when viewing another person’s arm being touched [6]. The feeling is due to the activation of mirror neurons, which, when activated, are priming us to move and effectively mirror another individual [7]. In the case of this study, it’s not just priming and mirroring which occurs, but actual sensation. It’s a fantastic example of how our brains can perceive the feelings of others.

In 2013, an incredible case of hyper empathy was reported after a woman underwent neurosurgery and had a part of her brain known as the amygdala removed for the treatment of epilepsy. What makes this case so incredible and somewhat peculiar is that the amygdala is responsible for the processing of emotions and consequently, empathy [8].

For thirteen years after her brain surgery, the woman continuously suffered from physical and mental symptoms of hyper empathy while experiencing emotion. These feelings included a “spin at the heart” indicating sadness, and an unpleasant feeling in the esophagus (the tube from the mouth to the stomach) when feeling anger. The symptoms occurred when the woman met with strangers, friends, saw people on TV, or reading about a character in a book. Furthermore, the symptoms were completely automatic, and no effort was required to instigate them. She could decrypt other people’s mental state of being with superb accuracy. [9]

Sensory Processing Sensitivity

Approximately twenty percent of the population has a personality trait known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). It means that those who have the personality trait have increased sensitivity and receptiveness to stimuli such as the environment, social interactions, and other people’s moods. A recent study found that those with SPS had increased neural activity in the regions of the brain responsible for higher-order cognitive processing, awareness, and interestingly, the mirror neuron system. The results of the study demonstrate that those with highly sensitive brains are potentially more aware of the emotions of others and are likely to be powerfully affected by the moods that they observe others experiencing. [10]

Hyper empathy is not yet fully explored, and therefore, a definitive list of symptoms is not readily available. However, a large volume of the global population experiences an increased sensitivity to the feelings and emotions of not only the people that surround them but also to both fictional non-fictional individuals seen on television. With the growth of social media usage, the exposure to another’s emotions via various mediums is likely to swell. Therefore, the volume of individuals presenting with the symptoms of hyper empathy is liable to increase.

If you are experiencing hyper empathy syndrome and are sensitive to the emotions and energy of other people, you will most likely perceive their feelings as your own. If they feel happy, you will feel happy and conversely, if they feel pain, you too will feel pain. Potentially, you will also sense physical manifestations of their emotions and feelings. Finally, hyper empathy presents with the perception of emotions from both non-fictional characters and non-present individuals.

Could you be suffering from hyper empathy syndrome? If you suffer from any of the suspected symptoms and are one of the twenty percent of the global population which has sensory processing sensitivity, the answer to that question could be yes.

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