“I Feel Your Pain” – The Neural Basis of Empathy
Last month, a terrible earthquake raised havoc in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While the Haitians in Port-au-Prince are miles away from us, witnessing media images of their physical and emotional suffering moves us tremendously, and motivates many of us to respond to their distress with monetary and other donations. In a sense, this is an amazing human feat—that we are able to feel for other people’s far away tragedies. How is it that we are so moved? This is a question about human empathy, and it has boggled the minds of great thinkers for centuries. Indeed, German philosopher Rudolf Lotze coined the term empathy (einfuhlung) to literally mean “in” (em) and “feeling” (pathos), or “to feel into.”
Since Lotze’s time, empathy has become an area of contemporary psychological and neuroscientific research. In psychology, empathy refers to the ability to understand another person’s mental and emotional experience. While a great deal of psychology research created a conceptual understanding of empathy, it was in the early 1990s that researchers first gained insight into the biological mechanisms that may underpin empathy. Researchers at the University of Parma, Italy, discovered that when macaque monkeys observe another individual’s (monkey or human) actions, the neurons that normally fire when the monkey him/herself performs the same action also fires in response to watching another person. The finding of these neurons, known as ‘mirror neurons,’ suggests that these monkeys use the same neural mechanism to represent their own and others’ actions, creating a neurophysiological link between one’s own experience and that of another individual. Humans also seem to have mirror neurons in brain areas analogous to those observed in the macaques. Several studies confirm that when humans observe another person’s intentional action and/or emotional expressions, they activate brain areas that are also engaged when the person would perform the action or experience the emotion him/herself.
It is worth mentioning that the relative role of mirror neurons in human empathy is currently of heated debate among researchers in neuroscience and psychology. The mirror neuron theory suggests that because of the immediate overlap in neural activation in response to our own and other individual’s actions, we are able to imagine another individual’s subjective experience. Yet, much of the time we are either inaccurate about or apathetic towards another individual’s experience. Mirror neurons do not explain why humans empathize with others more or less easily, nor whether we are more or less accurate in imagining their internal mental experience.
Although there is much more to learn about how humans experience empathy, the discovery of mirror neurons are a major contribution to our understanding. For now, the next time you pass someone on the street and feel sad because they look sad, you may have a better understanding as to why this happens. As the old saying goes, “I feel your pain.”
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Decety, J., & Meyer, M. (2008). From emotion resonance to empathic understanding: A social developmental neuroscience account Development and Psychopathology, 20 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S0954579408000503