Know how when your friends tell you that they “feel your pain”? Now we know what that looks like. Science has just mapped empathy. A new study has found that the brain patterns associated with how we feel when we sympathize with other’s hardships are consistent and predictable across individuals.
“Feelings of empathy are virtues we want to cultivate personally and in society,” says first author Yoni Ashar. “Understanding these emotions could open the doors to increasing empathy and compassion in personal relationships and on a broader societal level.”
Ashar and other scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recruited 66 adults to sit in a brain scanner while listening to 24 true tales of human pain and suffering. Previous studies of this type scanned cerebral activity in response to static images flashed on a screen. “We took a naturalistic experimental approach that more closely resembles how we encounter the suffering of others in our daily lives,” says Ashar.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity patterns of the participants as they listened to the tales of woe. The scientists then mapped the feelings to the patterns.
What they learned is that humans don’t have an “empathy center,” per se. The brain activity associated with the emotion is distributed across multiple brain regions, not rooted in one part of the brain, which is the normal way sensory input tends to be processed.
Here’s how it works: Patterns associated with empathic care – believed to inspire helpful behaviors – overlap with systems in the brain associated with value and reward. The less warm and fuzzy patterns of empathic distress – thought by some to be a deterrent, initiating a desire to withdraw or turn away – overlap with systems in the brain known for mirroring. All this helps an individual simulate or imagine what another person is feeling or thinking.
Using data from the study, the scientists were able to predict the feelings of an individual who had never been scanned before, based entirety upon their brain activity. “There is a personal element to when a person might feel empathic care or distress, but when you’re feeling them, you’re activating similar brain regions and brain systems as someone else might,” says Ashar.
Next steps? Since empathic distress influences giving, and is also associated with negative emotions and burnout in caregivers and nurses, the U Colorado team are developing a mindfulness program designed to teach participants to empathize with others in ways that don’t increase distress.
The research has been published in Cell.