The Situationist

New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 30, 2007

Divine sparkIt’s a common experience. You’re watching a movie where the main character is in a fight, or falls from a great height, or suffers a knife wound. Even if you’ve never experienced the exact method of injury, you flinch and even feel, to some extent, the pain that you imagine them to be feeling. Alternatively, the dorky hero is finally about to get that first kiss from the head cheerleader; our hearts race and a smile crosses our faces. Of course, physical and emotional empathy are an important means by which people relate to one another — feel each other’s pain or share one another’s joy. Still, no one would claim that they experience the same level of suffering or happiness as those that they witness. Exactly how we feel empathy and how much are questions that neuropsychologists are only beginning to try to answer.

Recent research led by Dr. Jaime Ward and Michael Banissy at the University College London have looked at what they term ‘mirror-touch’ synesthetes, people who experience physical touches they witness on others (which to some degree may be most of us). These new experiments might help illuminate how we experience empathy. A story by Reuters reporter Julie Steenhuysen is excerpted below.

* * *

Study May Explain Roots of Empathy

When people say “I feel your pain,” they do not mean it literally, but certain people really do feel something that appears to be an extreme form of empathy, British researchers said on Sunday.

They said watching someone being touched triggers the same part of the brain as actual touch, and this connection helps explain how we understand what other people are feeling.

People who experience a tactile sense of touch when they see another person being touched — something called mirror-touch synesthesia — was first studied in 2005 in one person.

But researchers at University College London have now studied 10 people with the same condition.

“It suggests there is a link between certain aspects of the tactile system and empathy,” said Michael Banissy of the university’s department of psychology, whose work appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Banissy and colleagues first did a series of experiments to authenticate peoples’ claims that they felt something when they saw someone else being touched.

They asked the 10 people with mirror-touch synesthesia to identify when they were being touched on their own body while watching someone else being touched on the cheek.

The actual touch was sometimes in the same spot as the person they watched being touched, and sometimes it was on the other side.

“The idea was to see whether synesthetic and actual touch were confusable in any way,” Banissy said in a telephone interview.

He said people with this mirror-touch capability were faster when the touch they saw was in the same location as actual touch.

“When actual touch and synesthetic touch were in different locations, sometimes they would confuse the two and report they were touched on both cheeks,” he said.

This confusion did not occur in 20 people without synesthesia who performed the same experiments.

The mirror-touch people also scored higher than others on a questionnaire that measured empathy.

“We often flinch when we see someone knock their arm, and this may be a weaker version of what these synesthetes experience,” Dr. Jamie Ward, who led the research team, said in a statement.

Other studies have suggested a link between empathy and mirror systems, but Ward said this was the first to suggest empathy involves more than one mechanism: an emotional gutfrightened-moviegoers.jpg reaction — which appears exaggerated in the mirror-touch synesthetes — and a cognitive process that involves thinking about how someone else feels.

“This appears to be the emotional component of empathy,” Banissy said. “It was purely gut instinct.”

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The researchers are studying this empathy connection further and trying to determine how prevalent mirror-touch synesthesia is.

“It does appear to be more common than we first thought,” Banissy said.

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For other worthwhile summaries of the research, go to Wired Science, or Neurophilosophy, or LiveScience.


2 Responses to “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy”

  1. Mr Kurnels said

    Well, this is actually true! And it’s fascinating! Just the other time me and my family were watching some horror movies, then finally ended our evening with Tyler Perry’s. You know what happens when you watch these films with happy endings… So this is actually true and I do strongly agree with the mirror-touch synesthesia….

  2. […] the paper for free, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Placebo and the Situation of Healing,” “The Situation of Time […]

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