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Understanding empathy: a global perspective

by Emily Wang Story Source September 11, 2013

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].

Mirror neurons, then, may bridge the divide between observing others’ experiences and empathizing with them. By translating observation into individual reality, mirror neurons enable individuals to directly experience the pain, distress, and frustration of others. If, on a visceral level, we feel what others feel, than we cannot truly detach the experiences of others from our own. Our current understanding of “self-interest” must shift and expand, for what is in the interest of others may also be in our own interest. Empathy offers a compelling motive for compassion: helping others can, on a biological level, be to your benefit.

However, the assertion that humans are biologically inclined to empathize seems to fundamentally contradict our social institutions. Adam Smith, in his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations, argued that free-market capitalism operates on self-interest, not empathy [3]. He claimed that when a buyer attempts to convince a seller to lower the price on a good, the most effective arguments appeal to the seller’s self-interest, not the seller’s sense of empathy for the buyer. The seller attempts to maximize profit; the buyer attempts to negotiate the lowest possible price [3]. The same division of interests appears to cause friction on regional, national, and global scales. From political gridlock at the White House over the fiscal cliff to conflicts at the UN over Syrian intervention, coalitions of all scales encounter the challenge of reconciling multiple opposing agendas. If our economic institutions pride greed over good, selfishness over empathy, then how can we change and shape our society to reflect our biological inclinations towards unity and cooperation?

Perhaps technological innovation can encourage empathy in our changing world. Jeremy Rifkin, in his video “The Empathic Civilization,” argues that “we have the technology that allows us to extend the central nervous system and to think viscerally as a family, not just intellectually” [4]. He cites websites such as Twitter and Facebook that can push the individual awareness to a global platform, eliminating geographical boundaries for empathy [4]. Furthermore, the rise of blogging platforms has enabled individuals from across the globe to broadcast their personal experiences to the world. Perhaps this can encourage empathy on a new level, where activism and cooperation is driven by interaction not between nations or organizations but between individuals.

And this interpersonal interaction, it seems, may be precisely what we’re biologically inclined to do.

1. Gallese V. The ‘Shared Manifold’ Hypothesis: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy. Journal of Consciousness Studies. May-July 2001; 8(5-7): 33-50
2. Rizzolatti G, Craighero L. The Mirror-Neuron System. Annu Rev Neursci. 2004; 27: 169-192
3. Smith A. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Random House; 2004.
4. RSA Animate. The Empathic Civilisation.

London; 14 Oct 2010.
Image Credit: The British Psychological Society. Is this the first ever direct evidence for human mirror neurons [Internet]: Leicester (Britain): The British Psychological Society; 2010 [cited 2013 Jan 1]. Available here.