Source: New Scientist
Date: 21 April 2004

Empathy may not be
uniquely human quality

secondary somatosensory cortex

The ability to empathise is often considered uniquely human, the result of complex reasoning and abstract thought. But it might in fact be an incredibly simple brain process meaning that there is no reason why monkeys and other animals cannot empathise too.

That is the conclusion of Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and his colleagues. The team used a functional MRI scanner to monitor volunteers while their legs were touched and while they watched videos of other people being touched and of objects colliding.

To the team's surprise, a sensory area of the brain called the secondary somatosensory cortex, thought only to respond to physical touch, was strongly activated by the sight of others being touched.

This suggests that empathy requires no specialised brain area. The brain simply transforms what we see into what we would have felt in the same situation. "Empathy is not an abstract capacity," Keysers concludes. "It's like you slip into another person's shoes to share the experience in a very pragmatic way."

Shared experience

Even more surprisingly, seeing objects collide generated the same activity. "We expected a big difference," Keysers says, "but the results are not restricted to the social world. In a certain way we share experiences with objects."

Other studies have produced comparable results: emotional faces activate emotional areas, for instance. It seems that the brain not only generates a visual sense of what we see, but also activates other sensory components to give us a complete "sense" or feeling for what we are observing.

This means we can feel empathy without building up complex theories about what others feel, Keysers says. Instead, after we have learned what feeling goes with being touched ourselves, our brains become conditioned to trigger the same feeling when we see others being touched.

"We do not need to assume a separate mechanism to understand the social world," he says.

Not everyone agrees. Narender Ramnani of the University of Oxford, UK, thinks that this process alone cannot fully explain empathy. We seem to have special areas of the brain as well, he says, which are active when we represent, or "mentalise", the thoughts of others.

Journal reference: Neuron (vol 42, p 335)

Helen Phillips


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