OK, so we can’t make force people into surgery to make them nicer. But the fascinating result of one woman’s brain operation may help us learn more about how our emotions function, and what physical mechanisms in our brains contribute to feelings of empathy.
The woman underwent surgery for epilepsy and doctors removed a portion of her temporal lobe, including an area called the amygdala, which helps us recognize emotions. Doctors would have expected her to be less attuned to others’ feelings after the procedure, but in fact the opposite happened. After the surgery she became hyper-empathetic, experiencing what she described as “new, spectacular emotional arousal,” according to an article in the Huffington Post.
The surgery was more than 13 years ago, and since then she has been keenly sensitive to the feelings of those around her, mirroring their experience in her own mind. Beyond pure emotion, she gets physical effects such as a spinning sensation in her heart and abdominal discomfort when she sees people angry or sad. Not only does she relate to the emotions of those nearby, but she also empathizes with actors on TV or even fictional characters in books.
Despite the unusual results, the surgery itself was fairly routine for epileptics who don’t get better with medication. Changes in personality are a common risk of the procedure, according to WebMD, which can mean different things to different people.
Hopefully, this case study will offer us a bit more insight of what’s really going on in that endlessly mystifying, complicated brain of ours. And as difficult as it must be to live in a state of hyper-empathy (here I empathize a bit myself), I am thankful that this woman’s seizures did stop after her surgery.
Image by: _DJ_