U.Va. psychologist James A. Coan conducted an fMRI study that monitored statistical associations between brain activations indicating self-focused threat to those indicating threats to a familiar friend or an unfamiliar stranger.
The results strongly suggest that we are hardwired to empathize because we closely associate people who are close to us – friends, spouses, lovers – with our very selves. As Coan told an interviewer, "People close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real."
One of the statements from the summary, to me, does not follow from the research:
In other words, our self-identity is largely based on whom we know and empathize with.Well, no. The study suggests that we empathize with people who have become part of our lives through some form of familiarity and/or intimacy. We make them a part of us, not the other way around. With the increase in familiarity and empathy, the person who was other becomes like me and I feel the same concern for that person as I do for myself.
First the abstract to the original study, which is sequestered behind a paywall, then below that is the summary of the article based off of the press release.
Lane Beckes, James A. Coan and Karen Hasselmo
Received September 16, 2011
Accepted April 16, 2012
Neurobiological investigations of empathy often support an embodied simulation account. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we monitored statistical associations between brain activations indicating self-focused threat to those indicating threats to a familiar friend or an unfamiliar stranger. Results in regions such as the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus indicate that self-focused threat activations are robustly correlated with friend-focused threat activations but not stranger-focused threat activations. These results suggest that one of the defining features of human social bonding may be increasing levels of overlap between neural representations of self and other. This article presents a novel and important methodological approach to fMRI empathy studies, which informs how differences in brain activation can be detected in such studies and how covariate approaches can provide novel and important information regarding the brain and empathy.
Beckes, L, Coan, JA, Hasselmo, K. (2013, May 3). Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience; 8(6): 670-677. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss046
Here is the summary of the research from Medical Xpress.
by Fariss Samarrai
U.Va. psychologist James A. Coan conducted the study. "People close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real," he said. Credit: Dan Addison
Perhaps one 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 empathize because we closely associate people who are close to us – friends, spouses, lovers – with our very selves.
"With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves," said James Coan, a U.Va. psychology professor in the 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.
"Our 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 empathize with.
Coan and his U.Va. 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.
The 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 self.
"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."
Coan said 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.
"It's 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 own pain."
This likely is the source of empathy, and part of the evolutionary process, Coan reasons.
"A 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."