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Author: Thomas S. May

Title: Terms of Empathy

What enables us to feel empathy—to experience or share another person’s pain, fear, joy, or any other emotion?
Empathy, research indicates, is made possible by a special group of nerve cells called mirror neurons, at various
locations inside the brain. These special cells enable us to “mirror” emotions.
However, the activity of these neurons can be modified by various factors, including the relationship of the people
involved. A new study suggests that, at least in men, whether we empathize with another person’s pain depends
on how that person had behaved in the past, and, perhaps more important, whether we like or dislike them.
Mirror, Mirror in the Brain
Mirror neurons were first discovered in the early 1990s by Italian scientists who, while looking at the activity of
individual nerve cells inside the brains of macaque monkeys, noticed that neurons in the same area of the brain
were activated whether the animals were performing a partic-ular movement (reaching for a peanut, for instance)
or simply observing another monkey—or a researcher— perform the same action. It appeared as though the cells
in the observer’s brain “mirrored” the activity in the performer’s brain.
A similar phenomenon takes place when we watch someone experience an emotion and feel the same emotion in
response, says Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The same neural
systems get activated in a part of the cortex called the insula, which is part of the mirror neuron system, and in the
emotional brain areas associated with the observed emotion.
However, the amount of activation is slightly smaller for the “mirrored experience” than when the same emotion is
experienced directly, Iacoboni adds.
A recent study by Iacoboni and colleagues highlights the impor-tance of mirror neurons and their role in the
development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by
impaired social interactions.
Iacoboni’s team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate neural activi-ty of 10 highfunctioning children with ASD and 10 normally developing children as they observed and imitated facial emotional
expressions. Although both groups performed the tasks equally well, children with autism showed reduced mirror
neuron activity, particularly in the area of the inferior frontal gyrus. Moreover, the degree of reduction in mirror
neu-ron activity in the children with autism correlated with the severity of their symptoms.
Iacoboni says, these results indicate that a healthy mirror neuron system is crucial for normal social development.
“If you have ‘broken mirrors,’ or deficits in mirror neurons, you likely end up having social problems, as patients
with autism do,” he says.
There are many kinds of mirror neurons, Iacoboni says. They include neurons for hand actions such as grasping,
holding, and tearing, and mouth actions including biting, drinking, and a wide variety of facial gestures. “We also
think there are ‘super mirror neurons,’ although we do not yet have direct evidence for their existence,” he says.
These super mirror neurons could control and inhibit the activity of lower-level mirror neurons, Iacoboni suggests.
He also hypothesizes that by modulating, or modifying, the activity of other neurons, super mirror neurons could
enable one to experience either pain or joy, depending on the circumstances, when watching another person
From Pain to Joy
In a study published in the Jan. 26, 2006, issue of Nature, Tania Singer, a research fellow at the Wellcome
Department of Imaging Neuroscience at University College London, and colleagues found what could be,
according to an accompanying editorial, the first neuroscientific evidence for the existence of schadenfreude, the
joy derived from another’s troubles.
© The DANA Foundation. All rights reserved.


the researchers first had their subjects take part in a game in which the other participants were associates. you really start disliking this person. Singer speculates that this finding is attributable to the study having involved the application of physical pain (electric shocks applied to the back of the hand). and more attractive than the unfair players.THE DANA REVIEW http://www. “If you engage in cooperation and trust and the other person doesn’t trust you. “We used this game because we know that it is a very good way to induce strong emotions. by withholding the money. if society is to remain stable. However. Singer says the fact that some people appear to be pleased when others who had been unfair are being punished can be explained in terms of evolutionary psychology.g2conline.” The scientists are not sure why men appeared to be less empathetic and more revengeful than women toward unfair players. so that overall.” Singer says. 2 . © The DANA Foundation. society gets more and more cooperators. subjects showed strong activation of pain-related brain regions when witnessing fair players receiving electric shocks. the investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at brain activity patterns while the subjects observed the Author: Thomas S. “If we had a psychological revenge. perhaps women would behave the same way. such as ruining the reputation of the other player. or mistrusted them. behavioral ratings confirmed that both male and female subjects rated the fair players as being significantly more agreeable. by sending them money. As expected. All rights reserved. it might be good if people punish those who are unfair and do not cooperate. this effect was accompanied by “increased activation in reward-related areas. these empathy-related responses were significantly reduced in males when observing an unfair person being shocked. which correlated with an expressed desire for revenge. May Title: Terms of Empathy In order to investigate the conditions under which individuals empathize with another person’s pain. The confederates were always “second movers” and could choose between a fair and an unfair response: returning high or low amounts of money. or “confederates. The research subjects always “moved first” and could show they either trusted the other players. The confederates played either fairly (displaying trust and cooperation) or unfairly (exhibiting a lack of trust and cooperation). in an attempt to make the subjects like or dislike them. more likeable.” she says. In the second part of the experiment. Moreover.” the investigators reported.” An analysis of the results showed that subjects did indeed perceive the confederates as being fair or unfair according to their game-playing strategy. Furthermore. “Therefore.” of the experimenters. you begin to like them. who they thought were being given painful electric shocks. “It is important for people to cooperate with one another. But if people respond with cooperation.” she says.