Egoism and Narcissism appear to be on the rise in our society, while empathy is on the
decline. And yet, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes is
extremely important for our coexistence. A research team headed by Tania Singer
from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences has
discovered that our own feelings can distort our capacity for empathy. This
emotionally driven egocentricity is recognised and corrected by the brain.
When, however, the right supramarginal gyrus doesn’t function properly or when
we have to make particularly quick decisions, our empathy is severely limited.
assessing the world around us and our fellow humans, we use ourselves as a
yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others. While
cognition research has already studied this phenomenon in detail, nothing is
known about how it works on an emotional level. It was assumed that our own
emotional state can distort our understanding of other people’s emotions, in
particular if these are completely different to our own. But this emotional
egocentricity had not been measured before now.
precisely what the Max Planck researchers have accomplished in a complex
marathon of experiments and tests. They also discovered the area of the brain
responsible for this function, which helps us to distinguish our own emotional
state from that of other people. The area in question is the supramarginal
gyrus, a convolution of the cerebral cortex which is approximately located at
the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. “This was unexpected,
as we had the temporo-parietal junction in our sights. This is located more towards
the front of the brain,” explains Claus Lamm, one of the publication’s authors.
Egocentricity can be measured
perception experiment, the researchers began by showing that our own feelings
actually do influence our capacity for empathy, and that this egocentricity can
also be measured. The participants, who worked in teams of two, were exposed to
either pleasant or unpleasant simultaneous visual and tactile stimuli.
participant 1, for example, could see a picture of maggots and feel slime with
her hand, participant 2 saw a picture of a puppy and could feel soft, fleecy
fur on her skin. “It was important to combine the two stimuli. Without the
tactile stimulus, the participants would only have evaluated the situation ‘with
their heads’ and their feelings would have been excluded,” explains Claus Lamm.
The participants could also see the stimulus to which their team partners were
exposed at the same time.
participants were then asked to evaluate either their own emotions or those of
their partners. As long as both participants were exposed to the same type of
positive or negative stimuli, they found it easy to assess their partner’s
emotions. The participant who was confronted with a stinkbug could easily
imagine how unpleasant the sight and feeling of a spider must be for her
only arose during the test runs in which one partner was confronted with
pleasant stimuli and the other with unpleasant ones. Their capacity for empathy
suddenly plummeted. The participants’ own emotions distorted their assessment
of the other person’s feelings. The participants who were feeling good
themselves assessed their partners’ negative experiences as less severe than
they actually were. In contrast, those who had just had an unpleasant
experience assessed their partners’ good experiences less positively.
Pinpointing the area
researchers pinpointed the area of the brain responsible for this phenomenon
with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging, generally referred to
as a brain scanning. The right supramarginal gyrus ensures that we can decouple
our perception of ourselves from that of others. When the neurons in this part
of the brain were disrupted in the course of this task, the participants found
it difficult not to project their own feelings onto others. The participants’
assessments were also less accurate when they were forced to make particularly
Up to now,
the social neuroscience models have assumed that we mainly draw on our own
emotions as a reference for empathy. This only works, however, if we are in a
neutral state or the same state as our counterpart – otherwise, the brain must
counteract and correct.