Multisensory Aphantasia and Empathy


To begin, let me clarify my understanding of empathy vs sympathy.  Empathy means experiencing someone else’s emotions while sympathy is an ability to understand them.  I have full multi-sensory aphantasia, meaning  I have no internal sensory response to thoughts, memories, or imaginings.  In discussing the experience of empathy with non-aphants I realized that I also do not experience the type of shared emotion that is the basis for empathy.  I can feel sympathy, but I cannot internally experience something that is not actually happening to me, even if it is something that I have experienced in the past.  For example, I have a 3rd degree burn, but as I listen to another person with a similar burn describe what they felt as they were being burned I do not experience any sort of shared feeling, more of a “knowing” that it’s a horrible experience.  

I am curious to know if this is a common experience for people with multi-sensory aphantasia?  If so, how has it effected your relationships?  And, how have you (or have you) increased your capacity for compassion without the experience of empathy?

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I am a multisensory aphantasic in that I can not have a mind’s eye,or ear, or sense of taste, or smell and if you asked me to feel the feeling of being burned – I could not conjure it up.  I can’t even remember ever being burned (even though I have burn scars) as I have very little autobiographical memory.  But, I have a deep knowing of pain, and joy, and love, and hate, and anger, and happiness and depression, and thus can feel a very deep empathy. I don’t know where this knowing comes from, I just know I am very good at feeling the joys and pains of others on a visceral level and responding to them.

Fascinating.  So, when you say you experience other’s pains viscerally you actually feel their pain as if it were happening to you?  You see someone grieving and you can feel grief, as if you’ve just lost someone you love,  not just understand that grief is painful?

Yes – I feel the grief of another. The extent of the grief would depend on my connection with the primary griever and/or the amount of grief they were feeling.  I doubt very much if my grief is near as great as the primary griever, but if the primary griever is someone I love, it can be pretty intense.  And even if they are just another fellow human in pain, I can cry along with them and share their pain .

I think I have full multi-sensory aphantasia but I do certainly have empathy and can easily feel the emotions of others (I cry in sad or touching movies, I relate heavily to characters in tragic circumstances, I cringe and feel uncomfortable if someone gets hurt (even sometimes feeling a not quite pain but very uncomfortable itchy feeling in my limb while watching someone else breaking or getting a cut or something.) 


Not sure if that helps or not but I feel that I am more connected to the physical and emotional pain of others and feel those things readily.. perhaps this is because of my lack of imagery. I am very present in the moment and so I take in all the information around me and really internalize it in the moment rather than letting my mind conjure up images of past of future. 

So interesting. 
I certainly am able to cry at a movie, but it’s because I feel bad (or happy) for the person, I don’t actually experience their emotions.  For example, I can be sad to see someone have their heart broken, but I don’t experience the heart break myself.  If I cringe when someone gets hurt it’s a reaction to seeing something shocking, not the visceral experience of feeling the pain the feel.  

I just assumed that empathy required internal sensory imagination, but that does not seem to be the case you or Norma Jean.  You guys are blowing my hypothesis out of the water.

I am a multisensory aphantasic, I can experience emotional empathy regardless of my lack of ability to directly experience the specific sensations in an imaginary form. I think there’s a pretty good suggestion here that we empathize less on things that are sensory based but that by no means is the only form of empathy there is and I’m not referring to sympathy, especially things like situational poverty, abuse, or any number of things I feel extremely deep empathy for people in those situations not just sympathy, it is a very real pain to me that can even be overwhelming in some situations.

Hi Phedre,

  I am very much into Emotional Intelligence (Master Thesis Transpersonal Psychology titled “Responsibility of Thought and Feeling”). When I teach at University, this is how I define and differentiate the difference of empathy and sympathy and maybe it will help you. Your example of the “3rd degree burn” is a perfect example of empathy.

  Empathy is the “understanding” of any emotional state of another through personal direct experience of the same. Easy example is with someone grieving due to death of a family member. An empathetic response is being able to connect with the “loss” another is experiencing because you have felt “loss” in  your life. You are not identifying with their specific “loss” because it was not your family member and you did not even know the person that died. With empathy, your “story” or “narrative” is not involved with the process.

  With sympathy though, the feeling of “loss” is identified but your personal experience (Ego) is overlaid onto the social narrative. So staying with the “grieving” idea-a sympathetic response would be something like “I remember when my Mom died….”. You connected to the “loss” another was feeling, but you put yourself into the narrative by adding your own “story” into the mix. 

  We ALL are empathetic since we all experience the same range of emotional expressions. The issue is that it is hard to not involve our Ego and write ourselves into the script of a social narrative or experience. It is not “good” or “bad” but part of the Observer Principle-we directly affect Reality through attention and intention. Part of the “Dance of Life”.

  Another thing that makes what you are exploring difficult is that emotions are “ineffable”- meaning they are beyond linguistic constructs or definition. For example, when I ask a class “Do you love something or someone?”, they all respond in the affirmative. When I ask them “What is your definition of love?”, there is NEVER agreement on the definition-even though everyone “knows” love and expresses it. The difference lies in the personal relationship or perspective to the experience. In a way, this part of what makes LIFE interesting. 

  I set this up to answer your main question of how you increase your compassion towards others. The simple answer is to increase the “compassion” or love and acceptance of yourself. The simplicity of the answer does not mean the execution is “easy”. You cannot “give” to another that which you do not “give” or have for yourself. Simply stated, you cannot LOVE someone MORE than you LOVE yourself. This capacity and capability is cultivated through “unconditional acceptance”.

  Unconditional Acceptance is the perspective where you accept things as they are-this does not mean things are perfect or balanced or that there is not room for improvement. Practicing this allows you to participate in Reality while maintaining a sense of independence or “free will”. There can be a fire at your house, but you do not have to “panic” because everyone else is.

  Without a strong foundation of Unconditional Acceptance, you cannot reach Unconditional Love. Most of our relationships are built on “conditioned” love; “I love you because….”, “I love it when….” or “I love the way….”. When you identify with conditioned love, agencies outside of yourself are then given control or authority over your internal state. Unconditional Love is LOVE without a fixation or focus. It is empathetic because it just “is”. It is the capacity to rest in the space “I LOVE” or “I Feel LOVE” for the sake of LOVE itself.

  I recommend you look at some of the work from the Heartmath Institute;

They are doing some good work about exploring emotional states within scientific protocols. Hope this answer helped you. 

YOU ARE OK!!!!!! The only way to affect change is to question everything-especially yourself. I prefer operating from an “I don’t know” mindset-this allows for change and growth. This allows me to see my Aphantasia as a beneficial tool. I am not distracted from imaginative imagery and have better focus because of this. I have found that psychedelic journeys like with Ayahuasca allow me to experience multi-sensory input and synesthesia. No difference whether my eyes are open or closed. The first time I “saw” music in the air was quite an experience!

Have a Great Day! 

I have similar experiences: total multi-sensory aphantasia and no empathy. If something isn’t directly happening to me right now (unless I’m having a flashback) I can’t experience or simulate what it is like. I don’t feel others’ feelings.

I wouldn’t say I’ve got an increased capacity to feel or be compassionate as a result. Mostly, the fact that I cannot experience what others are has made me aware of the limitations of empathy, how others’ lack of empathy for me isn’t pathologised because they’re neurotypical so their experiences are expected to be the norm shared by everyone, and how it can often be an inaccurate assumption of someone else’s experiences or mental state. 
I’ve found trying to develop or become more empathetic or compassionate hasn’t worked out, it just ends up with me still not experiencing the expected things and being unable to pretend. I’ve found being honest and direct, asking questions to find out other people’s experiences/emotions and what they need/want rather than assuming or trying to guess has worked out better.

Thank you for your response.  I do appreciate knowing I am not alone in this.  I love your thoughtful response in regards to the limitations of empathy.  I have tried to address this topic with others, but was not so clear in my description.  People are so quick to assume that if you don’t feel what other’s are feeling then you must be some sort of psychopath, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  I desperately want people to be able to rise above their emotional states and see things with a more rational point of view.  I wish I could say that being honest and direct in asking questions about other’s experiences has worked out better for me, but, in truth, it is the rare individual who can hear those questions and still see me as a friend.  Mostly my experience has been that such directness is viewed as an attack rather than a search for underlying truth.  

I have found others seem to have a reaction to me asking direct questions about their mental states or emotions, like you described. I think they expect me to know and start going through assumptions of why I don’t or why I might be asking. But, it’s the only option I’ve really got to know what is going on and how to help, and it’s better for me than guessing since I’ll probably guess wrong (especially since I tend to experience things differently from other people due to being autistic, so my guesses will be informed by what I know about a situation which mostly comes from my own experiences). At least if I ask directly I only have to explain my reasoning for doing so and not whatever incorrect guess I made. It seems to be better than trying to force or fake empathy, but still has some problems.

It helps me to remember that if and when people make assumptions about my emotions or mental state (which they’d label and include as part of their empathy) they are often wrong, and I find it to be invasive and quite frustrating and stressful, so by asking (even when they react negatively) I have at least not made in inaccurate assumption that they may not be comfortable with. Sometimes people get angry, like they think I’m trying to argue with them or something. I found that when I was talking to another autistic person, when I asked directly about what was making him worry, he just answered the question and I just responded to what he said, then the problem was solved, so I know the process of asking directly works if the other person co-operates, but I’m not sure how to get people who relate to each other via empathy to understand that I need to work a different way. 

I’ve also found people equate empathy to morality and kindness, and I can’t understand how that works. I learned about ‘psychopaths’ lacking empathy and thought I was one, because I couldn’t empathise or relate to others. If people define empathy by their sharing other people’s emotions, and say this is what makes people do good things, then aren’t they doing the good thing to share someone else’s positive emotions, rather than because it’s good? I don’t have to be able to feel someone else’s pain to believe they are hurt or not want to hurt them. I think there are different ways of processing and interacting with the world and other people, but the one that involves empathy seems to be the most common and therefore seen as the only way. Maybe one day we’ll be more aware of the different ways of working and be able to accommodate them better.