In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, the many wrongs that befall Offred strike a chilling chord among most readers. When she is struck with a cattle prod we can almost feel her pain, and recoil at the terrible injustice of her imprisonment.
It is so unsettling because we know that each scenario in this fictional work was influenced by an element of history. “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real,” Atwood wrote of her work in the New York Times.
We are therefore easily able to put ourselves in Offred’s shoes and feel empathy towards her. It taps into our very human capacity to share the feelings others feel. In fact, when we see someone else hurt, the brain areas linked to our own pain also become active.
But it turns out that our emotional state has an effect on how much empathy we feel. Our emotions literally change the way our brain responds to others, even when they are in pain. In particular, it is when we feel bad that it can have a consequence on our social world.
It is apparent that our mood can influence our behaviour in a myriad of ways, from the food choices we make – when we are in a bad mood we eat less healthily – to our friendships. When our friends are down and gloomy, the feeling can be contagious and can makes us feel more miserable too. Bad moods can even spread on social media, a 2017 study found.
In fact, our emotions are so powerful that when we are in a positive mood, it can dampen how much pain we feel when injured. It provides us with an analgesic-like effect. When it comes to negative emotions, the opposite occurs: our feeling towards that pain is exaggerated.
Worse, a recent study, published in December 2017, has shown that when we feel bad it affects our in-built capacity to respond to others in pain. It literally dampens our empathy. Emilie Qiao-Tasserit at the University of Geneva and her team wanted to understand how our emotions influence the way we respond to others while they are in pain. Individuals were made to feel pain with a temperature-increasing device on their leg. The team also showed participants positive or negative movie clips while in a brain scanner, in addition to making them feel pain, or when watching clips of others in pain. Did participants feel empathy towards those who they knew were made to feel pain, the team wondered.