Harvard Women's Health Watch

In Brief: Study reveals the biology of patient-psychotherapist empathy

In Brief

Study reveals the biology of patient-psychotherapist empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the situation of others and imagine how they feel. It's at the heart of our closest personal ties and a key element in the relationship between clinicians and patients, especially in psychotherapy. Studies have shown that the success of psychotherapy is strongly linked to the patient's perception of the clinician's empathy. So a better understanding of how empathy works could improve therapeutic techniques and patient outcomes.

Toward this end, researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston are monitoring physiological responses and emotional interactions during psychotherapy sessions. Results published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease show that when positive emotions are running high, patients and therapists are in sync physiologically, and the more in sync they are, the higher the level of empathy. The scientists believe that when combined with evidence from brain imaging and other neurological data, their research suggests that humans are literally "wired to connect."

About the study

The study involved 20 patient-psychotherapist pairs who met for more than 10 sessions at MGH's psychiatric outpatient clinic. Patients ranged in age from 21 to 55, and they were being treated for anxiety and mood disorders. The therapists practiced psychodynamic therapy, a form of talk therapy aimed at helping patients gain insight into their emotions.

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