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Machines Like Us

Understanding empathy: a global perspective

Wednesday, 11 September 2013
by Emily Wang

Imagine – while eating lunch, you observe that a spider is slowly crawling across a friend’s forearm. Immediately, your own arm tingles uncomfortably, but when you briefly glance downwards, no such spider is crawling up your own arm. Your mind has seemingly tricked your body into experiencing the sensation. Or, you are visiting a hospital nursery, and one newborn begins to cry. Immediately, and for no apparent reason, other babies respond to the first child’s cries with cries of their own. Soon, the nursery is overwhelmed by distressed babies.

Such incidents are no accident. Rather, researchers are beginning to develop a greater understanding of the science behind such scenarios, suggesting that the biological causes for these phenomena may trace back to our origins as social animals [1]. Recent discoveries have led to the discovery of neurons that may contribute to empathy in social interaction. These cells, referred to as “mirror neurons,” fire when an individual observes somebody executing an action, resulting in the individual experiencing the process vicariously [2]. Because such research suggests that the human brain possesses the capacity to vividly recreate the experiences of others, understanding mirror neurons may be the pathway to identifying the biological basis for empathy.

Researchers in Parma, Italy, first observed this phenomenon in macaque monkeys. Scientists analyzed MRI scans of their brains as they attempted to crack open a nut, recording the monkeys’ cognitive reactions to the process of nut-cracking. As the monkeys watched scientists in the lab crack open the nuts, their brains reacted identically, behaving as if the monkeys themselves were attempting to open the nuts [2].

Separate studies have reproduced similar results in humans [1]. For example, when observing physical movement performed by another individual, the motor cortex of the test subject responds as if the subject had performed the action [2]. In fact, research suggests that the systems of mirror neurons in humans may be more fully developed than the systems of the macaque monkeys that were initially studied. The same mirroring effect occurs when human subjects observe the examiner’s hands being pinpricked; the brain responds as if the subjects experience pain [2]. This particular effect, known broadly as “pain empathy,” indicates that mirror neurons play a larger role than merely facilitating learning by imitation. Unlike the initial observations of the nut-cracking macaques, pain empathy confers more than just an understanding the mechanical process of movement in the way that it confers emotional experiences, enabling the creation of shared emotions.

Although current studies have only proved the existence of mirror neurons indirectly, further investigation and discovery may elucidate more functions – some scientists hypothesize that the mirroring process may extend not only to pain empathy but also to the full spectrum of sensations, emotions, and experiences [2].