Are empaths on the psychic continuum

Original work

Mario Schlegel

Evolution of empathy

An essay

Summary: Findings from behavioral research, infant and toddler research, attachment theory and developmental psychology show that the human ability of mutual understanding and cooperation is based on the empathic abilities of mammals. Within primates, these abilities increase with increasing intelligence and enable increasingly complex forms of social interactions. Compared to great apes, humans have a special form of social cognition that enables their special way of learning, teaching and cooperating. While empathy is directed exclusively towards the other, at this highest level it is also about gaining clarity about one's own psychological state in order to establish a relationship based on oneself to the other. This ability to mentalize forms the basis for human social life and the resulting culture.

An understanding of empathy based on the results of evolutionary and behavioral biology opens up important insights for the psychotherapeutic process that come into play in the area of ​​countertransference and supervision.

Key words: evolution, emotional contagion, empathy, mentalization, countertransference, supervision.

Summary: Evolution of empathy - An Essay

Findings from research into behavior, infant and young child research, the theory of bonding and developmental psychology demonstrate that the human ability for mutual understanding and cooperation are built on mammalian empathic abilities. Within the prime order these abilities increase with increasing intelligence and enable ever more complex forms of social interactions. In comparison to the great apes, with humans there is a particular form of social cognition as well, which facilitates their particular form of learning, teaching and cooperating.

Examining the findings of evolutionary and behavioral biology support an understanding of empathy, open important insights for the therapeutic process, in the area of ​​counter transference and in supervision.

Keywords: evolution, emotional contagion, empathy, mentalizing, counter transference, supervision

1 Introduction

How can we know what is going on in the other? This is one of the central questions in understanding interpersonal relationships. The ability to understand each other not only forms the basis of our coexistence, but also of our culture.

This question is of particular importance for psychotherapy because - as has been shown to be the best supported result of psychotherapy research - a good interpersonal relationship between patient and therapist is the most effective factor for the therapy result. A good relationship not only creates a positive framework for the therapeutic process, it is also a prerequisite for fruitful relationship work, because psychological disorders can for the most part be traced back to relationship disorders.

Undoubtedly, empathy is necessary to know what is going on in the other.

But what are the requirements for this ability?

Findings from various research areas contribute to their understanding. Neuroscience discovered a few years ago that mirror neurons are not only found in monkeys but also in humans, other studies are concerned with the question of whether empathy can be trained by examining the plasticity of the brain in this context.

Ethology describes empathic behavior in animals and combines it with infant and toddler research, attachment behavior and developmental psychology, and the effect of empathy is examined in psychotherapeutic process research.

To clarify the question of how we can know what is going on in the other, the present work brings together findings from behavioral research, developmental psychology and psychotherapeutic process research. The aim is to present the phylogenetic and the individual (ontogenetic) development of human empathy as a seamless continuum, which can be derived from observable behavior, scientifically proven.

This also confirms the fundamental belief, inspired by Darwin's theory, of two founding fathers of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, that the human psyche is biologically based.

With his concept of archetypes, Jung even built a fundamental concept of his psychology on the theory of evolution by calling the archetypes "patterns of behavior" or "instincts".

The time was far from ripe to prove this view with research results from biology.

It was not until the mid-1950s, when behavioral research under natural conditions emerged in Europe with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, that the connection between ethology and psychotherapy that was inherent in the matter could be established. From today's perspective, it led to what is probably the most important theory of the second half of the last century, the attachment theory of the psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who worked with the ethologist Robert Hinde. It says that the child has an innate predisposition to attach to his caregivers. "Through Bowlby, significant parts of psychoanalysis and ultimately psychology were, in his own words," transformed into a modern theory of evolution. " They were incorporated after they [parts of psychoanalysis, i. Author] had previously lagged behind "beyond the furthest justifiable limits of the scientific world". "(Hrdy, 2010, p. 453, Quotes Bowlby, 1976, p. 425)

Building on the findings of attachment research in connection with the theory of mind and psychoanalysis, the concept of "mentalizing" emerged around the turn of the millennium (Fonagy et al, 2006, first publication in English 2002).

While empathy is aimed exclusively at the other, "mentalizing" is also about clarifying your own psychological state in order to be able to draw conclusions from yourself about the other. Self-reflection and meta-representations are the foundations of social interactions that can be grasped with the concept of "mentalizing".

A representation of empathy in humans developed from the results of evolutionary and behavioral biology is a new perspective in psychotherapy. A new perspective always opens up the potential for new knowledge, to which this work aims to contribute.

The evolution of empathy is presented in three parts. The first part focuses on the knowledge about the evolution of empathic abilities in mammals, especially those of great apes, in comparison with humans. Here I am essentially referring to the ethologist Frans de Waal. (de Waal, 2011a).

The subject of the second part, which is based on the evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello (Tomasello, 2006), is the question of what new evolutionary adaptation in humans compared to the great apes.

Finally, the third part deals with the highest form in this evolutionary continuum, the human ability to mentalize. I am referring to psychiatrists and psychoanalysts Jon G. Allen, Peter Fonagy, and Anthony W. Bateman. (Allen et al., 2011) and Ulrich Schultz-Venrath. (Schultz-Venrath, 2013)

2. The common biological basis of empathy in humans and animals

Empathy literature is extremely anthropocentric and completely ignores animals, says de Waal, who tries to reduce empathy to its basic elements. He therefore writes: "In my attempt to reduce empathy to its basic elements, I have expressly included the non-human animal world in my considerations." (De Waal 2011a, p. 265) "I think that empathy belongs to a legacy, that is as old as the mammalian lineage. Empathy uses areas of the brain that are more than a hundred million years old. The ability arose long ago with motor imitation and emotional contagion, whereupon evolution added layer upon layer until our ancestors not only felt what others felt but also understood what they might want or need. The overall ability seems put together like a Russian doll. At its core is an automatic process that many species have in common. It is surrounded by outer layers that fine-tune goals and range. Not all species have all layers: only a few adopt the perspective of others, a skill we are masterly at. But even the most highly developed layers of the doll normally remain connected to its original core. ”(Ibid. P. 269).

The present work tries to break down the development of the human ability of mutual understanding and cooperation in the form of a table. The breakdown should make the development continuum visible and give the opportunity to assign empathic interactions of the therapy process to the corresponding layers. This is because certain interactions take place in layers that are also available to animals.

Phylogenetic Development of Interpersonal

Ability to perceive and cooperate


Action (behavior)


Is self and others oriented

Explicit mentalization involves cognitive reflection

Implicit mentalization (intuitive) takes place automatically

Joint attention

Abstraction, meta-representation, self-reflection, imagination, symbol formation, language

Sophisticated cognition for social issues


Attribution of visible and invisible mental states

with oneself and others as well as their reflection

Judgment and the deliberate use of reason

Projecting (involuntarily), imaginative simulation, fantasizing, searching for meaning and meaning, narration

Teaching and learning through perspective adoption

Strongly prosocial and reciprocal: Rewards and punishments

Cons: torture

Transition area animal-human

Emotional-cognitive perspective adoption

Is other oriented

Integrates emotion and cognition

Compassionate interest and concern

Emotion regulation

Beginning to develop an identity

Sense of justice, gratitude

Chimpanzees (+ dolphins, elephants)

Situation-appropriate emotional and cognitively targeted help as necessary

To comfort

Cognitive perspective adoption (emotionally uninvolved)

Is other oriented

Cognitive understanding of the observable

Developed intelligence for facts


Observing the behavior and situation of the other in the here and now

Analyze facts, draw conclusions

The basis of the cognitive perspective assumption is the cognitive intelligence, which has to be developed so far that complex facts can be understood.

Emotional perspective adoption

Is other oriented

Empathizing with each other's feelings and needs and understanding emotionally

normally automatic, can be switched off

New ability: subject-object differentiation, self-awareness


Altruistic and / or prosocial behavior




Self-protecting comfort

Emotional support


Emotional contagion

Automatically through perception of the other

(without putting yourself in his shoes)

(No subject-object differentiation)

All mammals

Primary connectedness (preconcern)

(Without help)

All socially living animals

Synchronism (motor imitation), all social animals

Basis: PAM (Perception Action Model)

Perception  activation of the corresponding representative offices  action

Legend: The individual sections are not to be understood as separate units; they form the continuum of evolution. The abilities and behavior of the higher modes always include those of the lower ones.

Description of the table and explanations of terms

Converting de Waal's image of the babushka into a table has proven difficult. The individual skills and behaviors cannot always be clearly assigned to a single layer. On the one hand, this has to do with the fact that evolution is intertwined, and on the other hand, that the combination of abilities leads to emergences, in which the newly created abilities form more than the sum of the individual abilities. This leads, for example, to targeted help when combining emotion and cognition.

Some terms can only be approximated. The term “empathy” has developed historically with different meanings and uses, as the political scientist Michaela Strasser shows (Strasser 2013, p. 290). The different bundling of different human abilities under this label as well as the entry into the colloquial language gives it a definition fuzziness, which has led me to replace it in the tabular representation with the umbrella term "perspective assumption".

The concept of the "theory of mind" (ToM), which comes from ethology, is also not included in the table because of its different usage. The ethologists mean the knowledge of animals in relation to the knowledge of other animals about things (e.g. hidden tidbits), the psychologists mean the much broader area of ​​human social cognition. Here, too, the umbrella term of the assumption of perspectives is able to avoid ambiguity. (cf. de Waal 2011 a, pp. 133-135)

The division into emotional, cognitive and emotional-cognitive perspective adoption is justified by the current neurobiological findings of Tania Singer that different biological systems and brain structures are involved in their processing. (Singer and Bolz, 2013) She therefore differentiates between empathy and compassion. She understands empathy as sympathy, you feel the pain of the other, when you empathize you know about him and understand him without suffering him yourself.

The ability to mentalize is the level of social cognition and interaction reserved exclusively for humans.

Since the skills and behaviors cannot always be clearly assigned, the individual sections of the table are not to be understood as separate units, but rather form a continuum, with the higher levels always including the skills and behavior of the lower levels. The table is only intended to represent the seamless continuum; with regard to the individual levels, it serves as an approximation of the status of the discussion.

Finally, it must be pointed out that empathy can also be suppressed. To be empathetic always and everywhere would be too risky, you could not only lose your life, but also easily get social problems. Whether the suffering of the other touches us, prompts compassion and active help, or turns into the opposite, depends on many factors. Controlling the willingness to empathize, i.e. who is included or excluded, largely depends on social and cultural conventions.

2.1. Synchronism

Everything starts with the synchronization of bodies. (cf. de Waal 2011 a, p. 69). Motor synchronization, or imitation, is the primal form of coordination and the deepest root of social behavior.

Mirror neurons, which have been shown to contribute to the fact that we can recognize and imitate the movements of others, are to be regarded as the biological basis of synchronism.

Synchronism is automatic and can be found in all social animals. It forms schools of fish and birds as well as herd behavior.

We also perceive automatic motor synchronization in ourselves. We make the movements of the other our own when we involuntarily put ourselves in the body of others and move synchronously, or when our posture unconsciously coordinates with that of other people. That is why yawning is contagious and so is laughter. The latter also creates emotional attunement and transfer of mood, and laughing together creates emotional consensus. This is also the case with monkeys, they laugh when they play with each other. Sympathy and empathy develop.

I would like to mention one aspect of synchronizing at this point, because it is about experiences that everyone knows, but has probably not assigned to this ability. Because of this archaic, deeply anchored automatism, synchronous movements give us a lot of joy, either by dancing ourselves, watching a ballet, or by letting the synchronizing power of music move us physically and emotionally. The feeling of common strength and emotional unity is evidently also imparted by soldiers marching to March music at military parades, etc. It is obvious how deep the source of our pleasure in synchronization must be, because even small children spontaneously dance to music. When making music, the musicians synchronize on the highest motor, emotional and mental level.The evolution and cognitive biologist William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch even derived the evolution of language from music. (Fitch, 2014)

Synchronization in and of itself is not associated with feelings. These are only transmitted at the next level, the emotional contagion.

2.2. Emotional contagion

Children between 10 and 12 months cry when they hear other children cry. This is not about compassion, but about feeling contagion, they do not yet have a self that is different from the other. Although we as adults have a differentiated subject-object separation, we also know emotional contagion - we feel sad among sad people and happy among happy people, screams of horror make us freeze and instinctively, without thinking, go to the place where the terrible happened , a behavior that also occurs in animals and is described by de Waal as "preconcerners", which I would translate as "primordial connectedness" 1.

The fundamental question here is how a psychological status is transferred. In their much-cited work on understanding empathy, Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal have combined divergent views from different perspectives such as emotional theory, cognitive, learning theory and neuroscientific in a convincing model. They call it the "Perception-Action Model (PAM)". "The perception of the status of the object activates the corresponding representations in the subject, which then activate its somatic and autonomous reactions (translation by the author)." (Preston and de Waal 2002)

As Dimberg (Dimberg et al. 2000) found out, emotional contagion does not require conscious perception of the status of the object, but also takes place with unconscious perception. The test subjects responded with emotionally identical facial expressions to a screen presentation of faces with emotional expressions, the display duration of which was too short for conscious perception. The facial muscles are influenced within fractions of a second and, as a result, our emotions as well, as described in the "Perception-Action Model". (cf. de Waal 2011 a p. 93)

2.3. Emotional / emotionally uninvolved (cognitive) / emotionally and cognitively linked perspective adoption.

In contrast to feeling contagion, the ability to differentiate between subject and object is characteristic of all stages of development of perspective-taking, that is, a self that is different from the other and from which self-awareness arises. Only this differentiation enables the development of a relationship between the subject and the object and, as a result, altruistic and prosocial action.

The emotional assumption of perspective, colloquially referred to as empathy or compassion, can be expressed using the catchy formula: "Feel what the other feels and act".

The cognitive (emotionally uninvolved perspective assumption) “only concerns the way in which one individual perceives what another individual sees or knows” (de Waal 2011a, p. 135).

Cognition enables the analysis of complex facts and allows corresponding reactions.

The union of the cognitive with the emotional perspective adoption leads to adequate reference and situation-appropriate help, be it in dangerous situations, in cooperation, or by comforting after defeat.

This broad nature requires that affects can be regulated. An individual who is flooded with affects cannot provide help appropriate to the situation because this limits cognitive abilities.

Adoption of perspective and help at this level require identity. This manifests itself, for example, in the fact that children can see themselves in the mirror, which happens when they are around two years old. Chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins can also recognize each other in the mirror.

Chimpanzees are known to provide targeted help, and consoling care has recently also been demonstrated in elephants. (Plotnik J. M. and de Waal F. 2014)

3. The specifically human abilities for empathy

Light on the specifically human abilities of empathy is thrown from two sides. On the one hand through the evolutionary biological view of evolutionary anthropology, which deals with the animal-human transition, on the other hand through psychotherapeutic process research, which deals with the ability to understand each other.

3.1. The evolutionary perspective: a special form of social cognition in humans

From the perspective of evolutionary anthropology, Michael Tomasello dealt with the question of which adaptations in evolution made the cultural achievements of mankind possible.

From an evolutionary point of view, “there was not enough time for normal biological evolutionary processes, such as genetic variation and natural selection, to gradually generate each of the cognitive skills that modern humans enable, complex tool uses and technologies, complex forms of communication and To invent and maintain representation through symbols and complex social organizations and institutions. ”(Tomasello 2006, p. 14). So his aim was to identify a single adjustment effort that could achieve this.

Based on an abundance of knowledge from ethology and comparative experiments with small children and chimpanzees, he developed the theory that the adaptive performance sought consists of a “special form of social cognition”, “which allows people to“ classify their conspecifics as beings similar to them understand who have an intentional and spiritual life like themselves. This understanding enables them to put themselves in the spiritual world of another person so that they can learn not only from the other, but also from the other ”(ibid. p . 17)

Tomasello’s theory of the "special form of social cognition" is also being considered in the cultural and social sciences beyond his area of ​​expertise.

3.1.1 The ontogenetic (developmental psychological) point in time at which human social skills emerge

According to Tomasello, the social cognition of infants before the age of nine months has much in common with that of non-human primates. At nine months of age something “dramatic” happens and there can be “no doubt that we are dealing with unique processes of social cognition. The decisive step in the ontogenesis of social cognition occurs at this age, when the “understanding of others as intentional actors” begins. Only in this way can the child internalize the perspective of other people, which is the prerequisite for cultural learning. (see ibid. p. 123)

The child learns to take a perspective on others and on himself in action with others, and “ultimately, the kind of interaction in which adults comment on children's cognitive activities or give them explicit instructions leads them to the perspective of an outsider to take up their own cognition in acts of metacognition, self-control and representational re-description, which results in more systematic cognitive structures in a dialogical format. ”(ibid. p. 269). The culture that arises through teaching and learning forms the framework for cultural learning in a recursive process and thus creates a "species-specific and unique" ontogenetic niche "for human development". (see ibid. p. 105).

3.1.2 Where is the limit to the primates' social skills?

Chimpanzees are able to know what others know about objects, for example about hiding delicacies. How far they are able to know something about the mental state of others, or whether they simply draw their conclusions from observable behavior, is not so clear. In any case, we are “the only ones who worry about why we think the way we think” (de Waal 2011 b, p. 192). In contrast to the animals, which obviously only move on the behavioral level, we can move on an abstract level. "Although our inner dialogue never completely leaves the social motives of primates behind [...], it nevertheless elevates our behavior to a level of abstraction and self-reflection that did not exist before our species entered the evolutionary stage." . 193)

3.2. The psychotherapeutic point of view: the ability to mentalize

In contrast to the previous stage in the table, the emotionally and cognitively linked perspective assumption, which is exclusively aimed at the other, when mentalizing you also need to gain clarity about your own psychological state. “The pragmatic, relatively simple and short description of“ mentalizing ”is:“ To visualize thoughts and feelings. Mentalizing demands attention and mental work "; it is a form of mindfulness that perceives what others think and feel and what you think and feel yourself. "(Schultz-Venrath, 2013, p. 82)

Linking the perception of the other with the perception of oneself allows one to infer the other from oneself. This entails an appropriate response to what is being mentalized (usually a compassionate or compassionate response.

How big the difference is between great apes and humans at this level of social cognition is shown in the experiments on the cultural intelligence hypothesis by Esther Hermann and colleagues (Hermann et al., 2013). While three-year-old to adult chimpanzees and orangutans achieved comparable results in dealing with the physical world, with the exception of the use of tools, as two-and-a-half-year-old human children, human children ranged far above in terms of social skills.

3.3. The congruence of the evolutionary and psychotherapeutic perspective

Recognizing the other through oneself is also reflected in Tomasello's theory of the special form of social cognition, the consequence of which is to be able to empathize with the spiritual world of another person. This corresponds to the concept of mentalization and is the linchpin of psychotherapy.

4. What does it mean to mentalize?

The following quotes may outline the complexity and complexity of mentalization.

• "Mentalizing" is an imaginative perception or interpretation of behavior with reference to intentional mental states. (cf. Allen et al. 2011, p. 9)

• "Bateman and Fonagy [...] define" mentalization "as" the mental process by which an individual implicitly and explicitly assigns meanings to their own behavior and those of others, referring to intentional mental states such as personal desires, needs, feelings, beliefs and others Motives «." (Ibid. P. 79)

• “Mentalizing” also means reflexively grasping which circumstances and experiences in the past and present have led to the current wishes, thoughts and convictions.

• “But the mind only reaches full bloom with the appearance of the meta-representation (that is, with the appearance of the representation of representations - for example in the thought:" I think, therefore I am "); only now does the spirit truly become aware of itself and its place in the world. ”(Allen et al p. 114)

Mentalization takes place implicitly and explicitly. Implicit mentalization does not take place through conscious reflection, but happens automatically and intuitively, while explicit mentalization takes place in a controlled manner through thinking and reflection. Here the emotional and cognitive components complement each other, the mentalization is only complete if cognition and affect are integrated: "Full mentalization entails the integration of cognition and affect" (Fonagy et al. 2012, p. 29)

To make the whole thing a little clearer, I'll add three quotes that describe what it means when it cannot be mentalized:

• Without mentalizing, there can be no robust sense of self, no constructive social interaction, no mutuality in relationships, and no sense of personal security. (Bateman et al. 2012, p. XV)

• A lack of metacognition can be seen in the fact that “patients who are trapped in their depressive brooding and paranoid projections or are haunted by post-traumatic flashbacks can no longer perceive their psychological processes as mental events - they have lost their awareness of being represented. "(Allen et al., 2011, p. 114)

• "A failure of the ability to mentalize is problematic because it usually calls into question social relationships with regard to their attachment context, and also because a pre-mentalistic thinking about the self and others reappears, which can lead to various complications and deep relationship disorders" (Fonagy et al. 2012, p. 19, translation by Schultz-Venrath, p. 87)

Against the background of the present work, the concept of mentalization can be understood as a conceptualization of the basic patterns of interpersonal interactions. This also explains the fact that all psychotherapeutic procedures employ mentalizing interventions. Only the introduction of the term is new. As a tool, it supports efforts to systematize these interventions and apply them specifically. (cf. Allen et al., 2011, pp. 29-30 and Schultz-Venrath 2013, pp. 63-64)

Although the prerequisites for "mentalizing" have been acquired phylogenetically, their application must be learned like a language in interaction. The complex psychosocial development, which is essentially determined by the experiences of attachment, takes place in the framework that people have created for themselves, the culture. Tomasello describes it as a "species-specific and unique" ontogenetic niche "for human development". (Tomasello 2006, p. 105).

Tribal history and individual development cannot be separated, any more than nature, culture and spirit. They stand in a continuum that is embodied in the current individual. Unfortunately, the natural sciences and humanities are still separated from each other. However, Tomasello's investigations lift the limit. He writes: “This process [what is meant is an interpretation process, A. d. Author], however, is the subject of a naturalistic (but not reductionistic) investigation. Our question is how understanding as a cognitive ability developed into an important dimension of human thought during prehistory and human history, and how this ability develops today during ontogeny in one generation of children after another. I don't know whether this is a scientific or a humanities investigation. "(Tomasello 2006, p. 9)

5. Discussion and findings for psychotherapy

The topic of empathy makes it possible to show the development of interpersonal perception and cooperation from the perspective of evolutionary biology. The evolutionary biological concept of the “special form of social cognition in humans” and the psychotherapeutic concept of “mentalizing” both contain the same thing, namely the inference of oneself on the other. Linking evolutionary biological knowledge with the psychotherapeutic process therefore appears sensible and justified.

Beyond the presentation of this continuum, it has been shown that dealing with countertransference, one of the main instruments of therapy, finds an ethologically justifiable explanation.

In interpersonal exchange, all layers are active, or in other words, all channels are open. This is particularly true in the psychotherapeutic process. The archaic layer of emotional contamination has proven to be the most revealing. Nowhere else than in psychotherapy is the emotional contagion so much in the focus of self-perception, because it works, together with the downstream ability to mentalize, like an additional sensory organ, as it were as a sensory organ of interpersonal exchange.

5.1. The countertransference biology

This finding allows the following discussion of countertransference to be termed the "biology of countertransference".

Feelings that are not suppressed by patients are expressed normally through the body and can be read and interpreted directly by the therapist. Body expression and linguistic communication are congruent in this case.

But there are always feelings that are consciously hidden, covered over, suppressed by the patient, or are already unconsciously repressed or split off. Although these are not legible in contrast to feelings that are shown openly, they are perceived by the therapist in the form of countertransference2, which is derived from the emotional contamination. It takes place automatically in all interpersonal contacts, but is usually not perceived as intensely by the infected person because the attention is usually not consciously and directly directed towards the emotional contamination as in therapy.

According to the Perception-Action-Model (PAM), it must be the case that the patient "communicates" these feelings to the therapist. He does this involuntarily in very short sequences of his facial expressions. These are micro-expressions, as Ekman calls them, that last a twelfth to a fifth of a second. (Ekman, 2010 p. 296). Because of the shortness of their appearance, the therapist perceives them unconsciously, as Ulf Dimberg's experiments on infection through feelings have shown. This unconscious perception is contagious, it affects the therapist.

However, it is not only these microexpressions alone that modulate the countertransference, but also the transference from the patient to the therapist, the content of the verbal messages, brief changes in voice, posture, etc.

For the therapist, it is a matter of not getting infected, that is, of finding empathy from being affected to understanding. This happens through a consciously increased awareness of oneself. He mentalizes himself and the patient at the same time, which allows him to identify the emotional contagion as a countertransference. In this way, what he has felt in the patient's skin to a certain extent can flow back into the therapeutic process through appropriate interventions. This enables the patient to become able to perceive repressed feelings in himself.

The therapist's ability to distinguish himself is based on his stable subject-object differentiation and self-awareness, which is the prerequisite for good affect regulation. The connection between self-awareness and emotion regulation has been demonstrated neurobiologically (Herwig et al., 2010). In this way, the therapist can regulate highly contagious feelings such as fear in himself and, through appropriate interventions, promote affect regulation in the patient. Another prerequisite for being able to differentiate oneself well lies in the knowledge of one's own dysfunctional relationship patterns or complexes that have been worked on in the therapeutic self-awareness. This minimizes the risk of being affected by the patient's offer of corresponding relationship patterns and of interacting in dysfunctional patterns.

In order to ensure the subject-object differentiation even in difficult processes, psychotherapy has developed its own quality assurance instrument with supervision and intervision since its beginnings at the beginning of the last century. Difficult therapy processes are presented here in a trusting circle of colleagues. In addition to the exchange of experiences, this also primarily serves to differentiate between subject and object. While the therapist reports about his patient in the group, he identifies himself, mostly unconsciously, with him and thereby induces counter-transference feelings in his colleagues, which, however, apply not to himself, but to the patient, since he is sitting across from them, as it were. The mentalizations of the colleagues often help the therapist seeking advice to a liberating clarity, he is, so to speak, freed from his contagion. Often the supervision and intervision have a psycho-hygienic effect and a not inconsiderable influence on the further development of therapy. From this point of view, supervision is an expanded mentalization in that it gives the supervisee, in difficult cases, the external perspective of himself.

For a fruitful therapeutic relationship, it is imperative to sense the patient's emotions up to a point in order to be able to understand them and, in turn, to make them feel understood. Often times, emotional perception begins through countertransference.

A description of the countertransference from the point of view of this work could be:

"The countertransference consists of the feelings raised into consciousness and mentalized through self-awareness, which are triggered in the therapist by the patient through emotional contamination".

In contrast to feeling contagion, countertransference contains self-object differentiation. This means that the emotionally infected state of the therapist should not be called a countertransference, because in this state he is in danger of acting out these feelings, that is, of interacting in the patient's complex patterns. With that he would not be able to provide help on the mentalizing level of the evolutionary continuum.

In summary, the most important findings of this work are:

1. It is possible to reconstruct and understand the human ability of empathy from evolution on the basis of observable behavior.

2. The psychotherapeutic relationship claims the full range of phylogenetically and ontogenetically acquired empathy skills.

3. There is a fruitful explanation for countertransference and its application, which could be called the "biology of countertransference".

Final consideration

After thinking intensively about empathy and empathy, it seems appropriate to me to close the topic with an emotionally touching picture.

The ethologist Julia Fischer writes about the relationship between a Barbary macaque mother and her child: “The interaction between mothers and newborns is particularly instructive for understanding the development of a social bond. An experienced mother holds her baby by the stomach so that it can drink at any time. If she sits down, she holds the baby in her lap. Often mother and child look at each other for a long time. Adult monkeys usually avoid this as looking directly at them is a threat. However, eye contact with the newborn seems to develop great bonding forces and to be strengthened by the expression of a positive mood. (...) It is (...) mutual attention and the intensifying exchange of positive signals that lead to the establishment and consolidation of the social bond. "(Fischer, 2012, p. 40)

To me, this situation of intimacy between the mother's eye contact and her child seems to be the "primal scene" of the beginning of human incarnation, perhaps thirty million years ago, which must have taken place long before the upright gait emerged. Inevitably, the idea comes to mind here that the development of the nipples in primates on the milk bar near the face instead of on the stomach could have played a not insignificant role at the beginning of the psychic incarnation.

This image leads us back to the origin of our own personal incarnation, to the awareness that a securely attached child has the internal working model of a reliable and empathic carer and a self that is worth loving and receiving attention, an experience , to which psychotherapy can lead.


Mario Schlegel, Dr. sc. nat., completed his biology studies at the University of Zurich with a major in anthropology. At the ETH Zurich he did his doctorate in behavioral sciences on psychophysiological reactions in the word association test. Training as a psychotherapist at the C.G. Jung Institute Zurich, where he now works as a lecturer and training analyst. Psychotherapist in private practice, head of the scientific commission of the Swiss Charter for Psychotherapy and co-founder of the journal "Psychotherapie Wissenschaft". Author and editor of various publications in the field of psychotherapy. Current focus: Dialogue between schools of psychotherapy.


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