Emotional Exhaustion: Is Empathy a Choice?


Life offers endless opportunities to test your empathy—the ability to feel for and with others—sometimes to its breaking point: A rally that breaks out in violence; an earthquake that devastates hundreds of thousands in another country; a homeless person standing on the street outside your job; a friend whose cancer returns.

The average person feels some sort of empathy in response to these situations and, in the best of cases, is motivated to help. Maybe you donate money to the Red Cross, put your last $10 bill into that downtrodden person’s hand, or drive your friend to chemo. But in certain conditions, our empathy turns to exhaustion as we anticipate that caring will invest too much of our emotional resources in an outcome over which we have no control.

If you’ve felt the latter, you’re likely not a psychopath (characterized by a lack of feeling empathy for others). You’re probably just experiencing emotional exhaustion.


Emotional exhaustion occurs when your emotional reserves feel limited or drained, dampening your ability to feel empathy or compassion for others. This is often a matter of scale: While empathy for one person’s suffering may feel manageable, research shows that the greater the number of people in need at once, the less compassion people feel for them. “People are motivated to avoid the costs of empathizing with multiple suffering victims,” Daryl Cameron, a social psychologist at the University of Iowa, tells mental_floss. This phenomenon is known as “collapse of compassion.”

There are real consequences to caring deeply for the struggles of others. After all, when you empathize, you do more than just feel concern; it’s not uncommon for an empathizing person to “take on the sensory, motor, visceral, and affective states” of another, known as experience sharing, according to Jamil Zaki, a social scientist at Stanford. In a study about empathy [PDF], Zaki uses the example of a crowd watching a tightrope walker becoming physically tense, anxious, even sweaty, as they watch the person teeter high above them.

Yet even babies will crawl toward and attempt to comfort other crying babies. There are specific neurons in your brain called mirror neurons that play a role in helping you to understand the intentions and actions of others, and to gauge the cost of them on your own physiology.


To limit these “costs” of empathy, we’re more likely to “turn off” or deny our empathy for people through subtle acts of “dehumanization,” which, says Cameron, simply means “denying others’ mental states, thinking they have less capacity to think, feel or have conscious experiences.” This is more likely to happen in cases where we feel that our emotional investment will not pay off—say, when those others belong to a group we identify as unlike ourselves or stigmatized individuals, such as drug addicts. “We’re sensitive to the costs and benefits of empathy. We entertain the risks and rewards of empathy for others, and that can shape how much empathic behavior we engage in,” Cameron says.

One of Cameron’s findings, outlined in a recent study in the journal Social, Psychological and Personality Science, is that if a person thinks of empathy as a limited emotional resource, they’re likely to limit instances of empathy for a stigmatized target. However, if that scale is flipped and people are instead encouraged to think of their empathy as renewable, emotional exhaustion can be staved off.

Cameron and his research team engaged in two nearly identical studies. In the first, 173 participants were split into two groups and asked to read about a hypothetical adult black male named Harold Mitchell who was homeless either because he struggled with drug addiction—considered a highly stigmatized condition—or because of an illness out of his control, which lacks stigma. “They were asked, 'To what degree do you think it would be emotionally exhausting or draining to help him?' and we gave them the expectation that they would receive an appeal for help from this individual at some point,” Cameron says.

The results of this first study showed that people felt helping the drug addict Harold Mitchell would be “more exhausting” than those who assessed the blamelessly ill Harold Mitchell, says Cameron.

The second study kept the same stimuli, though they had a larger sample of 405 people. The only stimuli they changed, says Cameron, was that “we told people that the empathy appeal would be inspiring and rewarding.” The feeling of exhaustion towards the stigmatized drug addict Harold Mitchell went away in participants in the second study, Cameron says, because the researchers had presented a scenario in which helping him replaced “emotional costs with emotional rewards.”

Though Cameron is the first to say that their study is not necessarily representative of the general public because the sample population “tilts white and liberal, people in their mid-thirties, somewhat educated,” these studies suggest “we may have more control and flexible choice over when and for whom we feel empathy,” he says.


Zaki suggests we have an essential, automatic component to empathy—a built-in biological leaning toward caring for the suffering of others—but that our empathetic response is at the same time highly contextual. In the "tightrope" study, Zaki notes that in children, experience sharing—when we take on the feelings and even movements of others—may initially develop as an "undifferentiated response" to the emotions, he writes. "However, over time, children learn and internalize social rules, such as group membership, that produce motives to feel empathy in some cases but not others.”

Cameron suggests this is another avenue around which they could build experiments. “We could look at perceptions of social norms of those around you," he says. "Do your friends and family value empathy?”

And of course, one can’t ignore the effects of media—social and otherwise—we're all so relentlessly exposed to now. “With social media you have more demands on your empathy from the sheer amount of information about others’ lives presented to you,” says Cameron. “It may force us to be more strategic about when to feel empathy.”

Most interesting, however, is the plasticity of empathy, which appears to be highly susceptible to expectation and suggestion. “If our effect did generalize, one thing it does suggest is that what you think empathy is going to be like might matter quite a bit,” Cameron says. “If I tell you [empathy] is a renewable resource, not limited, something self-fulfilling and regenerative, you might make essentially different decisions on how to approach your empathy—and potentially be more expansive.”

DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures

Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

Essential Science
How Long to Steep Your Tea, According to Science

The tea in your cabinet likely has vague instructions about how long to steep the leaves. Bigelow, for instance, suggests two to four minutes for black tea, and one to three minutes for green tea. According to Lipton, you should "try singing the National Anthem" while waiting for black tea leaves to infuse.

But while it's true that tea brewed for 30 seconds is technically just as drinkable as a forgotten mug of tea that's been steeping for 30 minutes, drinkable shouldn't be your goal. Taste and—depending on the tea you're drinking—antioxidant and caffeine levels all depend on the amount of time the leaves are in contact with the water. So how early is too early to pluck out a tea bag, and how long can you leave it in before passing the point of no return?


To achieve the perfect timing, you first need to understand the chemical process at work when you pour hot water over tea leaves. Black, green, white, and oolong tea all come from the leaves and buds of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. (Herbal teas aren't considered "true teas" because they don't come from C. sinensis.) The teas are processed differently: Green and white tea leaves are heated to dry them, limiting the amount of oxidation they get, while black and oolong tea leaves are exposed to oxygen before they're dried, creating the chemical reactions that give the tea its distinct color and flavor. Damaging the tea leaves—by macerating them, rolling them gently, or something in between—helps expose the chemicals inside their cells to varying levels of oxygen.

Both green and black teas contain a lot of the same chemical compounds that contribute to their flavor profiles and nutritional content. When the leaves are submerged in hot water, these compounds leach into the liquid through a process called osmotic diffusion, which occurs when there's fluid on both sides of a selectively permeable membrane—in this case, the tea leaf. Compounds on the surface of the leaf and in the interior cells damaged by processing will diffuse into the surrounding liquid until the compounds in both the leaf and the water reach equilibrium. In other words, if given enough time to steep, the liquid in your mug will become just as concentrated with tea compounds as the liquid in your tea leaves, and the ratio will stay that way.

Osmotic diffusion doesn't happen all at once—different compounds enter the water at different rates based on their molecular weight. The light, volatile chemicals that contribute to tea's aroma and flavor profile dissolve the fastest, which is why the smell from a bag of tea leaves becomes more potent the moment you dunk it in water. The next group of compounds to infuse with the water includes the micronutrients flavanols and polyphenols, which are antioxidants, and caffeine. They're followed by heavier flavanols and polyphenols such as tannins, which are the compounds responsible for tea's bitter flavor. (They're also what make your mouth feel dry after drinking a glass of wine.) Tea also has amino acids like theanine, which can offset the sharpness of tannins.

Water temperature is another factor to take into consideration when steeping your tea. High water temperature creates more kinetic energy, which encourages the compounds to dissolve. "The heat helps you to extract the compounds out of the tea leaves," Shengmin Sang, a North Carolina A&T State University researcher who studies the chemistry of tea, tells Mental Floss. "If you put it into cold water or low-temperature water, the efficiency to extract these compounds out of the leaves will be much lower." But not all water is equal: Bigelow Tea recommends using water at a rolling boil for black tea, and barely boiling water for green tea.


Osmotic diffusion takes place whether you use loose leaves or tea bags, but there are some notable differences between the two. When given room to expand, loose tea leaves swell to their full capacity, creating more room for water to flow in and extract all those desirable compounds. Tea that comes prepackaged in a bag, on the other hand, only has so much room to grow, and the quality suffers as a result. This is why some tea companies have started selling tea in roomier, pyramid-shaped bags, though the size matters more than the shape.

But even before the tea touches the water, there's a difference in quality. Loose leaf tea usually consists of whole leaves, while most teabags are filled with broken pieces of tea leaves called dust or fannings, which have less-nuanced flavors and infuse fewer antioxidants than whole leaves, no matter how long you let them steep.

So if you have a choice, go with loose leaf. But if tea bags are all you have on hand, don't bother adjusting your brewing method: The difference in taste and antioxidants isn't something that can be fixed with a few extra minutes, and according to Sang, you should follow the same steeping times for both tea bags and loose leaf.

To calculate the perfect brew times for what's in your mug, first consider what you want most out of your drink.


Suggested steeping time: 2 minutes, 30 seconds to 5 minutes

Tea leaves are packed with beneficial compounds. Research indicates that flavanols such as catechins and epicatechins, found in both green and black teas, help suppress inflammation and curb plaque build-up in arteries. Drinking tea may improve vascular reactivity, which dictates how well blood vessels adjust to stress. According an analysis of multiple tea-related studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology in 2015, drinking three cups of tea a day reduces your risk of coronary heart disease by 27 percent, cardiac death by 26 percent, and total mortality by 24 percent. Polyphenolic antioxidants in tea may also protect against diabetes, depression, and liver disease.

Past research has shown that it takes 100 to 150 seconds to extract half the polyphenol content from green and black tea leaves. According to a study published in 2016 in the journal Beverages, you can get more polyphenols into your drink if you allow the leaves more time to steep. However, the returns may not be worth the extra effort: Most of the compounds the researchers measured after 10 minutes of steeping were extracted in the first 5 minutes.

Sang makes another argument for not waiting too long to drink your tea. Antioxidants are slightly unstable, which means they will eventually break down and lose their healthy properties after infusing with water. “After you extract the compounds from the tea bag, you can not keep the solution for too long,” he says. “Because these compounds are not stable, they will be oxidized. So if you brew it in the morning, then you drink it in the afternoon, that's not good.” This oxidation can occur even after the tea leaves are removed from the cup, so if your tea has been sitting out for a few hours, it's better to brew a new batch than to pop it in the microwave.


Suggested steeping time: 3 to 5 minutes

Though less potent than its rival coffee, a properly brewed cup of tea packs a caffeine punch. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology [PDF], letting your tea brew for at least a few minutes has a big impact on the caffeine content. The study found that after brewing for one minute, a cup of regular Lipton black tea had 17 milligrams of caffeine per 6 ounces of water, 38 milligrams per 6 ounces after three minutes, and 47 milligrams per 6 ounces after five. (The nutritional information for Lipton black tea says a serving contains 55 milligrams of caffeine per 8 ounces, so it's pretty accurate.)

Some people may use those numbers as an excuse to steep their tea past the five-minute mark in an attempt to reach 100 percent dissolution. But a longer brewing time doesn't necessarily equal a stronger caffeine kick. Yes, more caffeine molecules will enter the tea, but so will other compounds like thearubigins. Caffeine works because it's perfectly shaped to bind to certain neuroreceptors in your brain, thus blocking the chemicals that tell you to feel tired. But caffeine is the right shape to bind to thearubigins as well, and if that happens first, less caffeine will get to those neuroreceptors. So if you're looking for a highly caffeinated cup of tea, you should remove the leaves after most of the caffeine has been extracted—after about three to five minutes—rather than waiting for every last milligram of caffeine to dissolve.


Suggested steeping time: 1 to 3 minutes

There's nothing wrong with enjoying a cup of tea for taste alone. Flavor is the most subjective factor influenced by steeping times, but for the sake of simplicity, let's assume you prefer a pronounced tea taste that's not overshadowed by bitterness. To extract those more delicate flavors, you don't need to steep your tea leaves for very long at all. Some of the first volatile organic compounds to break down in tea are geraniol and phenylacetaldehyde, tied to a tea's floral aroma, and linalool and linalool oxide, which give tea its sweetness.

The other compounds we associate with tea's distinctive taste are tannins. They're the difference between an aromatic, fruity cup of tea and a bitter cup that needs to be diluted with milk before it's palatable. But tannins aren't all bad: Some people prefer their tea to have a bracing astringency. Because tannins are some of the last molecules to dissolve into tea, if you want to add some bitter complexity to your drink, steep your tea for a minute or two longer than you normally would. A good way to keep track of the strength of your tea is to look at the color: Like tannins, pigments are heavy compounds, so if you see your tea getting darker, that means it's getting stronger as well.

And what about herbal teas? Feel free to leave the leaves in as long as you like. Because herbal teas are high in aromatic compounds and low in tannins, drinkers can be more liberal with their steep times without worrying about getting that astringent taste. Some teas, like rooibos and chamomile, also contain antioxidants, which is another reason to take your time.

And if you're new to the world of tea and aren't sure what your preferences are, put a kettle on the stove and start experimenting.


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