Your level of empathy is down to brain cells

Are you someone who loves a weepie? Do you find your eyes filling with tears when a friend shares a sad experience with you? Do you feel yourself sympathising with every lame duck you meet?

Well, I’m the same and it gets worse as I get older. Years ago I read some brain research that showed people with great empathy have a set of extra brain cells called mirror receptors.

These brain cells can “mirror” the feelings of others and are responsible for sympathy and empathy. The more mirror receptors you have, the more sympathetic or empathetic you are.

Now researchers have discovered a new form of extreme empathy where someone can feel and absorb the emotional, physical and mental ­condition of another person without even talking to them.

These people have a form of synaesthesia, where the senses are blurred, meaning that people “hear” colours, “see” sounds or “taste” words.

Scans prove it. They show white matter, tissue that connects different regions of the brain, is organised ­differently in people with synaesthesia.

Parts of their brain linked with colour recognition become active when words are heard, and people “see” shapes, colours and patterns when they hear poetry, or songs.

Now researchers have identified an even more remarkable form of ­synaesthesia: the power to feel the emotions and physical sensations, and even the pain of others as if it were your own.

Dr Natalie Bowling, psychology researcher at the University of Sussex, estimates that 2% of people experience “mirror-touch synaesthesia”.

She says: “Mirror-touch ­synaesthesia has been less well known until now. A typical example is when someone sees someone being touched on the face and they feel it on their own face.”

Such people are often so highly attuned to other people’s moods they feel the emotions of those around them, sometimes in an exaggerated form.

Dr Bowling says: “Some people can find it too much.

“One woman I know of became a recluse. She couldn’t leave the house. She found it hard to even be with her family at meal times.”

Professor Abigail Marsh, who works as a ­psychologist and neuroscientist at Georgetown University, Washington DC, refers to such people as altruists and says they are the opposite of psychopaths, who have zero empathy.

Suffolk-based psychotherapist Lizzie Falconer, who also identifies herself as an empath, says: “10 years ago, if I had mentioned to someone that I feel other people’s feelings, I’d have been thought mad.

“But there has been a shift in my field of work. Now it is recognised as a gift.”