of the most defining features of humanity is our capacity for empathy – the
ability to put ourselves in others' shoes. A new University of Virginia study
strongly suggests that we are hardwired to empathise because we closely associate
people who are close to us – friends, spouses, lovers – with our very selves.
familiarity, other people become part of ourselves," said James Coan, a
psychology professor in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences who used
functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans to find that people closely
correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves. The study appears in
the August issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
self comes to include the people we feel close to," Coan said. In other
words, our self-identity is largely based on whom we know and empathise with.
Coan and his University of Virginia colleagues conducted the study with 22 young adult
participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains during experiments to
monitor brain activity while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks
to themselves or to a friend or stranger.
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. In the case of threat of shock to a
stranger, the brain in those regions displayed little activity. However when
the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant
became essentially identical to the activity displayed under threat to 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, and 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. And as people spend more time
together, they become more similar.
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
is the source of empathy, and part of the evolutionary process, Coan reasons.
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." People
need friends, Coan added, like "one hand needs another to clap."