Oh what a feeling!

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Empathy is the “intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” But claims exist that some individuals take this innate human capacity a step further into the paranormal, and are able to precisely synchronize their emotional state with that of another person, or alternatively, project their own emotions onto the psyche of others around them. This is distinct from telepathy, in which an individual is believed to literally read another person’s thoughts, much as one would read this article. Paranormal empaths would be individuals who are able to forcibly alter someone else’s emotional registry. Can any evidence of such a phenomenon be found?

Human empathy is a healthy characteristic of a well-adjusted individual. The compassion felt for those who suffer, the protective instinct that helpless newborns evoke- these are candid examples of situations that elicit an empathic response. In this regard, the ability to affect another’s emotional well-being is hardly paranormal; it is as simple as responding in kind to the emotional state witnessed by the observer.

Perhaps evidence for the ability to control emotional states, or something similar, can be found in the pheromone detection abilities of several species of animals and insects. In this paradigm, pheromone release by one member of a species can influence the behavior of other members within the group, eliciting, for example, group territorialism or mating responses. However, this signaling mechanism is a biochemical method of hijacking behavior, as opposed to a paranormal one.

A fascinating example of this type of instinctive override is demonstrated by a microorganism called Toxoplasmosis gondii. In order to complete its life cycle, T. gondii must spend part of its existence in rodents, but finish developing in the feline brain. While it may seem like the penultimate biological joke to have an organism be dependent on this particular animal combination, the organism is able to commandeer the brains of rodents to eliminate their innate fear of feline predators. In fact, not only is this fear eliminated, but evidence demonstrates that rats infected with T. gondii develop an attraction to feline urine and seek out such areas. This fatal attraction is a stunning example of how one organism is able to ablate the natural predator-driven fear as a means of facilitating its own existence at the expense of another.

These behaviors, while not evidence of paranormal empathy, indicate that certain biological instincts in lower organisms can be externally overridden. Where humans are concerned, reports have proposed that androstadienone is a human pheromone that facilitates responses to fear or anger stimuli. This remains contentious, as the ability to detect and process such signals through the vomeronasal organ (VNO) appears to be inoperative in humans. However, perhaps some other mechanism to produce and detect behavior modifying compounds has evolved in humans, as other research has demonstrated significant alterations in participants’ brain activity upon olfactory exposure to compounds in the sweat of “suitable” versus “unsuitable” sexual partners.

As it stands, the full spectrum of human emotions allows development of complex personality traits as unique to an individual as their fingerprint or retinal pattern, and are an integral part of interpersonal communication. Humans have evolved the capacity to interpret and process these emotions that adds dimensionality to human interaction, making empathy a natural component of the human condition. If, in humans, it is indeed possible to modify natural instincts by biochemical coercion, perhaps such a mechanism represents the only feasible manner by which “paranormal” empathy may occur, indicating that perhaps “paranormal” might be more of an undiscovered and uncharacteristic feature of human function.

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