They feel your pain as if it were their own – and charge you £200 an hour to do so. Why has empathy become such a prized commodity?
It is late on Friday at Piper’s diner in Koreatown, Los Angeles. David Sauvage, a slight 36-year-old man with an arresting stare, is preparing to empathise with me. “These aren’t ideal circumstances, but that’s OK,” he says. A few night owls busy themselves with eggs and tacos; a waiter carries a tray of drinks between booths. Sauvage crosses his legs, removes his necklace, exhales deeply and prepares to inhabit my feelings.
“If we start with where you are now, you’re much more open than you were a few moments ago.” He pushes his head back and takes tiny gulps of air. “You’re right now in your life going through… I almost want to say a spiritual awakening? You’re searching for cosmic truth. Or some emanation of the divine.” He shudders. “It’s very weird to have this experience in someone else’s body.”
Sauvage is an empath. This, he had explained as we’d walked down Melrose Avenue a few moments earlier, is not merely someone who is capable of common empathy. According to Sauvage, it is someone who is capable of feeling someone else’s feelings in their own body, as if they were their own. “I am an extreme empath, in the sense that I can consciously enter into someone’s emotional field and figure out what is going on with them.”
At first, Sauvage wasn’t sure what to do with his abilities. He grew up in an affluent Jewish family in Laurel Canyon. His mother is a lawyer, his father made historical documentaries. He spent most of his time at school detached, distracted, overwhelmed by the emotions of those around him. “I got sort of clogged up, like a pipe that had been filled with other people’s stuff.” He moved to New York, took an MBA, had a promising career as a film-maker and was involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, before falling into a severe depression from his late 20s until his early 30s. He credits his recovery to LSD.
Then, in 2015, he participated in a ceremony involving the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca, at a house in nearby Topanga Canyon. It gave him “extremely painful” bodily spasms that lasted five or six hours. But when he emerged he was like a “newborn babe”. “She [ayahuasca] made it impossible for me not to follow my authentic self,” he says now. The experience taught him that emotion was rooted in the body: “empathy was a gift that became a curse, that became a gift, that became a skill, that became a superpower, that became a mission.”
Sauvage now hires out his insights to business clients who wish to inject empathy into their commercials; he has staged empathic readings at the Burning Man festival and at an art gallery in New York; he has also empathised with people through virtual reality. Often, when he tells other people what they are feeling, they burst into tears.
And so here I am, feeling a bit like Harry in the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally, watching Sauvage embody me. “As you go down into your body there’s this expansive but unexpressed anger.” He bites down on his hand and screws up his face in frustration. “And underneath that anger there’s a lot of buried sadness. And below sadness your deeper core is…” He pushes his chest out. “There’s a surrendering to the divine order. I can see you, lying on the grass looking at the stars, taking it all in. You’re very feminine, open to the flow of things. So that’s your nature.”
He opens his eyes, puts his glasses back on and becomes a little coy. “That was a bit of a rush job. But you get the idea.”
Before I moved from London to Los Angeles last September, I had never heard the term “empath”, – nor considered that the general reservoir of empathy might be so low that empathy might have attained the status of a real-life superpower (it’s already a movie superpower: there’s an empath character in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2). Empaths and their close cousins, intuitives, tend to draw on a similar client base to tarot readers, yoga instructors, crystal healers and reiki practitioners. In Los Angeles, it is more common to meet people who are into this stuff than those who aren’t.
And as each day passes, it seems more and more people are identifying empaths. It’s an increasingly popular tag on Tumblr and Instagram. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, moderates a Facebook support group for empaths: she defines an empath as someone who absorbs other people’s emotions to the point of feeling oppressed by them. Around 80% of her clients are female. “But you know what’s interesting? I’m finding now that even the non-empaths are becoming more like empaths,” she tells me. “The social media news environment creates a sort of sensory overload. You can’t help but feel all the time. and ultimately it leaves you with this helplessness.”
The first empath I met before Sauvage was Noah Berman, a confident 26-year-old from New York in LA to promote his wellness startup. He is a handsome, well-dressed young entrepreneur, yet there is also something fragile about him. I ask him if an empath is just a millennial rebrand of the old-school psychic. “I don’t like that language. I don’t feel it resonates with me. It’s not very intentional,” he says. Right, I say. And I guess psychics charge people money, too. “I charge people money, because I value myself,” Berman says. “But I don’t say things to people that aren’t helpful for them.”
He had a “typical” American childhood in Westchester County, New York state, but he always found himself knowing things without knowing how he knew them. “I would guess passwords on computers. That started happening when I was six or seven. And then around 10, I started asking my parents questions like: ‘Why do evil people smell bad?’” He was bullied by his classmates, who were freaked out when he intuited information about them, or remembered details from first grade. “My whole life, I was constantly told that I shouldn’t think about these types of things,” he says. “If I told somebody that I cared, that was frowned upon. I think that having something that makes you stand out is frowned upon.”
He “came out” as an empath to a close friend when he was 18. They were sharing a joint when her sister came in looking distressed; Berman told his friend that her sister had been sexually assaulted by a person they both knew, and that she would disclose this in three weeks’ time. His premonition was correct. A couple of years later, while he was working for a startup in New York, he told a colleague to be careful as an explosion would take place in her vicinity; she returned home to find a gas explosion had closed her street. His colleagues encouraged him to pursue his intuitive potential. “It got to the point where I couldn’t not talk about this.”
Berman now charges tech and business clients $250 (£195) an hour for his readings, which he sometimes performs in person, but mostly does over the phone (he finds it easier: fewer distractions). Mostly people ask him about their relationships: “Tell me about my mother.” Berman says he can often “heal” a relationship by having a “soul conversation” with the mother in question. “I might get a download from the mother saying: ‘You were not supportive enough to your older sister.’ Then the client might say to me: ‘Well, I wasn’t in a place where I could support her. I’m sorry.’ And the mother might say: ‘I forgive you.’ Then a few days later, they might call their mother and she brings up the exact same thing. It happens a lot.”
“I feel this shower of energy in my body and then it will come to me as a download,” he explains. What does he mean by a download? “I don’t know what else to call it. I think all of our brains are a bit like radios that are always sending and receiving things. If someone’s heart is broken, my heart will actually hurt. If someone’s nervous, I’ll feel butterflies in my stomach. But you have to learn to use it so you can still function. A lot of people who are this sensitive can’t even function in the real world.”
Kristin Mothersbaugh, 27, is an actor and empath who practises at an LA boutique called House of Intuition. She grew up in Bible belt Missouri where her father owned a cattle ranch. “I’m the odd one out where I’m from. I can’t say, ‘I’m an empath’ to my grandma.” She was always extremely sensitive as a child, bursting into tears if anyone raised a voice, spending a long time just staring at people. Her father died when she was 18 and she went through a crisis of faith, eventually finding solace in a yoga class. “It was through yoga I got into meditation, then tarot, then reiki and now. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.” She performs some empathic clairvoyant work on me, telling me a story about how a black wolf is watching over me and a red-haired lady in pink is kissing me, and my love for my son is very orange. She laughs a lot.
She doesn’t mind at all that most people think what she does is nonsense. It hurts that her family do, but she finds a supportive community online. “There are so many people talking about being empaths on YouTube. There are a lot of souls coming through who are naturally empathic and who are struggling with this materialistic society. They’re finding each other online.”
In 2006, Barack Obama told American students that the country was suffering from an “empathy deficit” and called upon Americans to learn “to recognise ourselves in each other”. Empathy became a political buzzword; “Free Empathy” was a common sign at the Occupy protests in 2011. The 2016 presidential election was widely seen as a bad moment for empathy (“Did Donald Trump kill empathy in politics?” wondered one Washington Post columnist).
Perhaps it was politics that killed empathy. A 2011 University of Michigan meta-analysis of dispositional empathy in college students found that our ability to relate to one another has been declining since 1979. (The report uses the Interpersonal Relatability Index, which measures empathy according to four separate criteria, including the ability to take in other people’s perspectives, and to identify with fictional characters.) Students are generally less likely to agree with statements such as, “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” than they were a few decades ago. The authors noted the correlation between the fall in empathy and the rise in narcissism, and suggested the emphasis neoliberal economics places on individualism as one likely explanation. When you’re encouraged to “be yourself”, to value competition over collaboration, empathy becomes a less desirable trait. “Millennials reported values that reflect high individualism, low authoritarianism and high political interest,” noted the authors. “However, these values are not necessarily equated with empathy. In fact, feeling unique and special is correlated with narcissism, which is linked to less empathy.”
Accordingly, empathy is now seen as a social panacea – much as self-esteem was in the 90s. Recent books on the theme include Empathy: Why It Matters And How To Get It, and The Empathy Instinct: How To Create A More Civil Society. The tech industry has taken note. Facebook has created an Empathy Lab to help its coders understand the interfaces they’re building from the perspective of users – whom they are now encouraged to refer to as “people”. Virtual reality is widely touted as an “empathy machine”; if everyone could view the world as a Syrian refugee or a paraplegic wheelchair-user, would we become a better species? “We are entering an era that is unprecedented in human history, where you can experience anything the animator can fathom,” Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, recently boasted.
Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s autism research centre, has spent much of his career studying the genetics of empathy – our unselfish genes, perhaps. He’s also the chair of trustees for the charity Empathy for Peace. “I’m glad that empathy is getting more airtime,” he tells me. “Empathy is one of the most useful human resources that we have. It doesn’t lead to any of the adverse side-effects that other means of conflict resolution do.”
When scientists – as opposed to bijou California mystics – talk about empathy, they usually break it down into different functions. Cognitive empathy is recognising what somebody else is feeling. Affective empathy is the emotional state that is triggered by recognising what somebody else is feeling. (A psychopath might have high cognitive empathy but low affective empathy, for instance; just because you’re good at reading someone’s feelings doesn’t mean you care about them.) And there’s a third kind of empathy, consolatory empathy, or acting on those feelings. “This is a reason why empathy has evolved,” Baron-Cohen says. “When we see someone in pain, we don’t just note it and walk away. It usually propels us to do something about it – to rush over and help, or perhaps donate money to a cause.”
Baron-Cohen typically uses two tests to measure empathy, both of which correlate with activity in our brain’s empathy circuits. One is the EQ test, which gives 60 questions for you to agree or disagree with. Another is the Eyes Test, a multiple choice quiz where you look at a pair of disembodied eyes and select the emotion that you feel best corresponds. When you scatter the combined results across a graph, you get a bell curve: a small amount of people score zero (very low empathy) and a small amount score six (very high empathy); the vast majority of individuals group around the middle. Women tend to score higher than men.
“If it were the case that you could never have too much empathy, natural selection would result in us all having ever-higher levels of empathy,” Baron-Cohen says. “But the fact that not many people are super-high or super-low might mean that we have actually evolved optimal empathy: enough empathy to ensure that we can remain in the social group, but not so much empathy that we can’t at times be solitary and self-focused.”
So it’s not controversial to say that some people are more empathic than others – or that this might make them ill-adapted to society? “Maybe these empaths are indeed sixes,” Baron-Cohen says. “It sounds plausible that you could be overwhelmed by other people’s emotions. And you can argue that one of the downsides of too much empathy is that you’re not sufficiently self-focused to complete your own projects.”
Still, people who score highly for empathy are not often studied; it’s the zeros – the narcissists and the psychopaths – who tend to interest researchers. Baron-Cohen makes suspicious noises when I tell him about some of the empaths’ claims. He says that what they describe is not a million miles away from synaesthesia – the blurring of the senses that allows some people to hear blue, for example. But he’d really need to get them in a lab.
It is not only humans who are capable of the most sophisticated consolatory form of empathy. As the primatologist Frans de Waal has noted, chimpanzees will take special care when grooming a mother who has lost her child. But empathy isn’t always a predictor of the best moral outcomes. Like chimpanzees (with whom we share 98% of our DNA), our conceptions of selfishness and selflessness tend to relate to our own particular in-group. Studies have shown that the brain’s empathy circuits fire less when we observe pain in someone of a different race, social class, political persuasion, or even a supporter of a rival football team. The child psychologist Paul Bloom has argued that for this reason, empathy alone is not a reliable way of coming to a moral decision: “It can motivate cruelty and aggression, and lead to burnout and exhaustion.”
This is a conclusion that many of the empaths I spoke to seemed to be intuiting their way towards. Alexandra Roxo, 32, is an LA-based life coach who says she has always been “highly sensitive” to the feelings of those around her, to the point where it was damaging to her. She has stopped reading newspapers as she feels them too upsetting, and rations social media. “Literally, if you show me an injured puppy I will break down in tears,” she says. “I spent so much of my life picking up everyone’s shit around me. Now I’m like, nope, unless you’re paying me, I’m not gonna tune in.”
This does not make her a less caring person, she believes; rather she is now able to put her empathy to better use. “It creates a really good boundary. Even if it’s a kid or a dog that’s dying, it really benefits no one for me to inhabit their emotional state. Empathy is not action. It’s much more useful to be knowledgable about what’s happening so you can effect structural change. If everybody’s swimming in a sea of feelings, it’s an impediment to action.”
Noah Berman echoes her point: “People call millennials oversensitive. I say, ‘Guilty as charged!’ But our generation is here to change systems that don’t serve the majority of humanity. I think we’re perceiving things very differently.”
Did any of the empaths read me right? Of all the readings I received, I found David Sauvage’s the most insightful. Yes, I do feel I’m open to the world right now. And, yes, there is this layer of sadness and frustration. And at the bottom of it all, a sort of feminine receptivity. As we returned to our camomile tea in the diner, I felt torn between wanting to learn more about myself and wanting to retain some semblance of objectivity. Sauvage insists that once you truly experience someone else’s feelings, you cannot judge them. “What flows from empathy is compassion.”
But the main thing that occurred to me was that, despite our highly individualistic culture, it’s rare that we actually get to talk about our inner selves with someone who appears to give a damn – even if it is because you’re paying them. You experience a rush of confession. And then you feel embarrassed and vulnerable. I remember something that Kristin Mothersbaugh said: “People seem to think I know more about them than they do.” If the world is indeed suffering an empathy deficit, those who claim to be empaths wield great power.
“People have such shitty emotional literacy,” Sauvage says. “We’re emotional ignoramuses. We’re so stuck in the way things ought to be – we don’t spend any time figuring out how people actually are.”