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Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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February 22, 2004

Empathy is a Hardwired Feeling

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Posted by Zack Lynch

As I mentioned in emotions in art and the brain "emotions and feelings are mediated by distinct neural systems. Whereas emotions are automatic responses to sensory stimuli, feelings are 'private, sbjective experiences' that emerge from the cognitive processing of an emotion eliciting state."

Providing hard evidence of this view is an excellent piece of research reported in this week's Science by University College London neuroscientists, Tania Singer and Ray Dolan (who showed videos of this research at the neuroesthetics conference).

"Human survival depends on the ability to function effectively within a social context. Central to successful social interaction is the ability to understand others intentions and beliefs. This capacity to represent mental states is referred to as "theory of mind" or the ability to "mentalize". Empathy, by contrast, broadly refers to being able to understand what others feel, be it an emotion or a sensory state. Accordingly, empathic experience enables us to understand what it feels like when someone else experiences sadness or happiness, and also pain, touch, or tickling."

An Overview of the Empathy Experiment: (A real stinger)

"To hunt for this form of empathy, the researchers recruited 16 heterosexual couples who were romantically involved and assumed to be attuned to each others feelings. Each man and woman had electrodes attached to their right hand capable of delivering a mild, ticklish shock or a stinging, short jolt of pain.

Each woman then had her brain scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging, while being able to view only the right hand of her beau sitting beside her. Unable to see her loved one's face, her only clue to his state was conveyed symbolically by a set of lights indicating whether he was receiving a mild shock or a stinging jolt.

When the women were subjected to a strong shock, a whole series of brain regions lit up including those on the brain's left side that physically mapped the pain to their hand. The regions of the brain - the anterior insula (AI) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) - involved in the emotional response to pain and other situations, also lit up.

But when their partners were zapped, regions physically mapping the pain were quiet while the AI and ACC and a few other regions lit up in the women's brains. And the signals from those two areas were stronger in women who reported a greater degree of empathy, suggesting these regions mediate empathy.

Singer suspects that our brain's ability to intuit the emotional response of others could have been strongly selected during evolution. "If I do something, it tells me will it make you smash me, will you kill me or will you like it? Being able to predict how others feel might have been necessary for human survival," she says.

I couldn't agree more, empathy is critical to human survival. This research is a great addition to the growing scientific literature on empathy and provides further evidence that animal models of human behavior are insufficient to undertand human behavior and to develop effective neuroceuticals.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals


1. Denny on February 24, 2004 10:18 AM writes...

For folks interested in "brain current events," you may enjoy "Brain in the News," a free monthly newsletter. Contact: Brain in the News, The Dana Center, 900 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005.

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2. Jessica Ferrato on February 24, 2004 8:59 PM writes...

Does the study indicate any differentiation between genders with regards to empathy? There was an article in the NY Times not long ago about neurological studies conducted by marketing firms which mentioned that females respond positively to being trusted, whereas males do not. I can come up with a number of theories which may explain this difference, and they all relate somehow to empathy.

There was an article in the Times today (2/24/04)about autism, which made some suggestions that the traits peculiar to autism are exaggerations of some of the differences in brain activity exhibited between men and women, on the male side, and that empathy is chief among those traits.

Is this scientific evidence supporting the theory that men are jerks?

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3. Arthur T. Murray on February 26, 2004 8:34 AM writes...

Brain Waves is a well-done, fascinating weblog, well worth linking to, as I have done today. is my own take on emotions, FWIW. is my independent-AI-scholar theory of how the brain works -- a Concept-Fiber Theory of Mind. is AI For You (AI4U), a book I wrote on programming an artificial mind to implement the above-linked Concept-Fiber Theory of Mind.

Best wishes, Arthur T. Murray

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4. tom on February 27, 2004 7:19 AM writes...

I seem to remember that complex empathy tasks (like understanding jokes which rely on understanding the mental states of the people in the joke) can be used to show gender differences in empathy.

It's only anecdata however, and, hey, it's not exactly a surprising finding is it?

If you want to look for more chase up Simon Baron-Cohen's extreme male brain theory of autism (the guy mentioned in the times article, right?)

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5. Sam Vaknin on February 29, 2004 5:17 AM writes...

You may find this of intrerest:

Pathological narcissism is - to simplify - a disorder of empathy:

Thake care.


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