According to a study recently published by researchers at the University of Colorado, empathy is rooted in cognitive processes rather than sensory ones, as reported by the Daily Camera. The study found that the act of understanding the pain of others does not involve the same neural pathways as experiencing pain in one’s own body, suggesting that the two are different interactions within the brain.
The study revealed that the brain patterns of volunteers when they experienced pain themselves did not overlap with their brain patterns when the volunteers were observing the pain of others. When observing pain, the volunteers showed brain patterns consistent with “mentalizing,” which involves imagining another’s thoughts and intentions.
“The research suggests that empathy is a deliberative process that requires taking another person’s perspective rather than being an instinctive, automatic process,” said Tor Wager, the Director of the University of Colorado’s Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and the senior author of the study, as reported by Daily Camera.
According to the abstract of the study published in eLife, understanding empathy is the key to understanding pro-social behavior. While the theory of “shared experience” suggests that common brain representations are responsible for both somatic and vicarious pain, other research suggests that the brain requires specialized circuits to register empathy.
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The researchers used functional neuroimaging with multivariate pattern analysis to identify dissociable patterns in brain activity for both pain experience and pain observance. When two distinct patterns emerged, the researchers were able to discern that they followed different processes.
The study concludes that “perceiving others’ pain does not appear to recruit the same neural circuitry as experiencing the pain ourselves. Rather than recruiting our somatosensory system to understand another’s pain, we use processes involved in representing another’s mental state. The lack of direct representation of others’ pain in somatic pain systems provides a mechanism for understanding why we might systematically under-weigh others’ painful experiences, including their suffering and substantiates Adam Smith’s insight from 250 years ago that our moral sentiments are grounded in our cognitive rather than sensory faculties.”
“When we witness what happens to others, we don’t just activate the visual cortex like we thought some decades ago,” said Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam in Psychological Science. “We also activate our own actions as if we’d be acting in similar ways. We activate our own emotions and sensations as if we felt the same.”