A new study suggests that humans are hardwired for empathy — the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes — because we closely associate people who are close to us, such as friends, spouses, and lovers, with our very selves.
“With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves,” said Dr. James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. “Our self comes to include the people we feel close to.”
For the study, Coan and his research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on 22 young adult volunteers.
The scans were used to monitor brain activity while the volunteers were under the threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves, a friend or a stranger.
The researchers found, as they expected, that regions of the brain responsible for threat response — the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus — became active under threat of shock to the self.
When the threat was to a stranger, those regions of the brain displayed little activity, the researchers report.
However, when the threat of shock was to a friend, the volunteers’ brain activity was “essentially identical” to the activity displayed when the threat was to themselves.
“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” Coan said.
“The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others — that people close to us become a part of ourselves. That is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”
This likely is because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves, Coan said.
As people spend more time together, they become more similar, he added.
“It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” Coan said. “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.”
This likely is the source of empathy, and part of the evolutionary process, Coan said.
“A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” he said. “Threats can take things away from us.
“But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal. It’s a part of our survivability.”
The study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Source: University of Virginia