Our brains are capable of experiencing physical empathy in a variety of ways. We rely on the intuitive, sensory-motor parts of the brain to relate to someone who is experiencing something that we have also experienced. However, through the rational part of the brain, we are also able to feel empathy for someone feeling something we have not or are incapable of experiencing.
According to a new study from University of Southern California, even missing a limb will not stop your brain from understanding what it is like for someone else to experience pain in that limb.
Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor at USC’s Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, explains how the brain produces empathy, even for those who differ physically from themselves in a paper published online by Cerebral Cortex.
Though they are engaged to differing degrees depending on the circumstance, it appears that both the intuitive and rationalizing parts of the brain work in tandem to create the sensation of empathy, said Aziz-Zadeh.
“People do it automatically,” she said.
For the study, the USC research team showed videos of tasks being carried out with hands, feet, and a mouth to a woman who had been born without arms or legs and also to 13 typically developed women. Videos showed activities that included mouth eating and a hand grasping an object.
Researchers also showed videos of pain, in the form of an injection, being inflicted on parts of the body.
As the volunteers watched the videos, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI); the scans were then compared, which showed the differing sources of empathy.
In another finding, Aziz-Zadeh discovered that when the women without limbs watched videos of tasks being performed that she could also perform but using body parts that she did not have, the sensory-motor parts of her brain were still strongly activated. For example, the woman can hold objects, but uses a stump in conjunction with her chin to do so instead of a hand.
However, if the goal of the action was impossible for her, then an additional group of brain regions involved in deductive reasoning were also engaged.