Why Are Some People Emotional When Others Aren't? Science Says It Has To Do With The Physical Makeup Of Our Brains
You've probably known since around kindergarten (if not earlier) that some people are just more emotional than others. It's not just a gender thing, either — there's always a weepy boy and that stone-faced girl. New research suggests that emotional people's brains are physically different than more "rational" people's brains, and that how much empathy you experience is largely a function of how many cells you have in certain brain areas. So tender-hearted citizens of the world take note, maybe those feels aren't really your fault after all.
Researchers at Monash University used a sophisticated technique called voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to study the grey matter density of 176 participants' brains. They also gave the participants tests to evaluate their "affective empathy" and "cognitive empathy." Though both of these traits are called "empathy," "affective empathy" refers to emotional stuff like crying at a fearful scene, and "cognitive empathy" is about thinking things through rationally for or with other people instead of just emoting towards them.
As the researchers conclude in their study published in NeuroImage, participants with higher scores on affective empathy had more dense spots in the middles of their brains, whereas participants with higher scores for cognitive empathy had dense spots where the two halves of their brains connect. This means that these different styles of empathizing are not merely chosen on the fly by thinkers, or are the product of the scenarios under consideration, but are partly a reflection on what brain the person brought to the situation in the first place.
In the extreme, we see that people with autism have different-looking brains too, as evidenced by prior research. Since autism is characterized by difficulty in empathizing with other people, it's not very surprising that physical differences would show up in the brains of people with lower-level reduced empathy. Sociopaths have distinct brains and different patterns of empathy as well; they seem to be able to shift in and out of an empathizing state at will (empathizing when it's useful, but refraining when it's not).
If these individual differences in empathy and showing resulting emotions — both normal and abnormal — are rooted in biological structures, they may be more difficult to overcome than if empathy is learned. However, it is also possible that social learning and education partially caused the various dense spots in the participants' brains in the first place. Since our brains are so incredibly adaptable, further research is required to figure out whether we can change the dense spots and, by extension, our empathy patterns over time, or whether we're stuck with the ones we've got forever.