Humans are hardwired to empathise because they closely associate people who are dear to them - friends, spouses, lovers - with themselves, a new study suggests. "With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves," said James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans to find that people closely correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves. "Our self comes to include the people we feel close to," Coan said. In other words, our self-identity is largely based on whom we know and empathise with. Coan and colleagues conducted the study with 22 young adult participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains during experiments to monitor brain activity while underthreat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves or to a friend or stranger.
The researchers found that regions of the brain responsible for threat response - the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus - became active under threat of shock to the self. In the case of threat of shock to a stranger, the brain in those regions displayed little activity. However when the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant became essentially identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.
"The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar," Coan said. "The finding shows the brain's remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it's very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat," said Coan.
Coan said this likely is because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And as people spend more time together, they become more similar.
"It's essentially a breakdown of self and other, our self comes to include the people we become close to," Coan said. "If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain," said Coan.The study appears in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Study: To The Human Brain, Me Is We
A new study from University of Virginia researchers supports a finding that’s been gaining science-fueled momentum in recent years: the human brain is wired to connect with others so strongly that it experiences what they experience as if it’s happening to us.
This would seem the neural basis for empathy—the ability to feel what others feel—but it goes even deeper than that. Results from the latest study suggest that our brains don’t differentiate between what happens to someone emotionally close to us and ourselves, and also that we seem neurally incapable of generating anything close to that level of empathy for strangers.
To find this out, researchers had to get a bit medieval. They had participants undergo fMRI brain scans while threatening to give them electrical shocks, or to give shocks to a stranger or a friend. Results showed that regions of the brain responsible for threat response – the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – became active under threat of shock to the self; that much was expected. When researchers threatened to shock a stranger, those same brain regions showed virtually no activity. But when they threatened to shock a friend, the brain regions showed activity nearly identical to that displayed when the participant was threatened.
“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” said James Coan, a psychology professor in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences who co-authored the study. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”
The findings back up an assertion made by the progenitor and popularizer of “Interpersonal Neurobiology,” Dr. Daniel Siegel, who hasconvincingly argued that our minds are partly defined by their intersections with other minds. Said another way, we are wired to “sync” with others, and the more we sync (the more psycho-emotionally we connect), the less our brains acknowledge self-other distinctions.
Research in this category also dovetails nicely with that conducted by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, whose work has shown that we seem to have evolved to cognitively connect in relatively small groups of roughly 150 or less people (often referred to as “Dunbar’s Number”). Beyond that number, our brains strain to sync with others. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes a lot of sense because chances of survival for ourselves and the group are amplified if we can devote the greatest level of cognitive resources to the task.
“A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” said Coan. “Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal. It’s a part of our survivability.”