Hard-Wired for Empathy
Ever watched someone grimace after they
sniffed a carton of sour milk? Even though you were spared a whiff
of stinky milk, to your brain, you might as well have been sniffing
the milk yourself, a report from Italy suggests.
New research shows that when we
see an expression of disgust on someone else's face, the same
part of our brain -- the insula -- is activated as when we feel
"People have overemphasized the
importance of thoughts in our understanding of others," Dr. Christian
Keysers of the University of Parma, a co-author of the report,
told Reuters Health.
Although Keysers said that empathy
for others is often thought of as a matter of morals, "in our
study, on the other hand, we show that empathy is a very basic,
simple and automatic process," he said.
Keysers explained that when we
see the emotions on another's face, "we don't need to think about
how that person feels." Instead, according to Keysers, we share
the feeling of disgust because the insula is activated as if we
were disgusted ourselves.
"This sharing is automatic," he
said. "Our subjects were not asked to share the emotion of the
other person and did not report attempting to do so after the
scan. It just happens."
Keysers continued, "This shared
feeling of disgust could then be our key to understanding how
the other person feels."
Researchers used a tool called
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain
activity of 14 men as they watched short movies of people smelling
pleasant, disgusting and neutral odors. Brain activity was also
monitored while participants themselves smelled a variety of odors.
The researchers found that a part
of the brain called the anterior insula, which previously has
been linked to feelings of disgust, was activated not only when
participants smelled something disgusting but also when they watched
others take a whiff of something stinky.
A report on the findings is published
in the October 30th issue of the journal Neuron.
"We implicitly understand the meaning
of the actions of others and the meaning of their emotions by
simply stimulating them," Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, another of the
study's authors, told Reuters Health.
"What we provide is a neurophysiological
characterization of empathy," said Rizzolatti.
The next step, according to Rizzolatti,
will involve studies of schizophrenia and autism to see to what
extent malfunctioning in the ability to mirror the emotions of
others is to blame for difficulties in establishing meaningful
relationships with other people.
SOURCE: Neuron, October 30, 2003.
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