Human Brains Wired to Empathize, Study Finds07/26/11
TUESDAY, July 26 (HealthDay News) -- A person's brain works hard
to empathize or understand what it's like to walk in other people's
shoes, no matter how different they may be, a new study
Researchers from the University of Southern California found
people automatically attempt to empathize -- even with those who
are physically very different. To do that, however, people must use
two separate regions of their brain.
In a paper, published online by
Cerebral Cortex, USC researchers found that empathy between two people who can relate to each other more directly relies primarily on the intuitive, sensory-motor parts of the brain. A person who empathizes with someone who is very different or with whom they cannot directly relate, however, depends more on the rationalizing part of the brain.
In conducting the study, USC researchers showed videos of hands,
feet and a mouth doing "tasks" to a woman who was born without arms
or legs, as well as 13 typically developed women. The participants
were also shown videos of injections being given on certain parts
of the body.
As they watched the videos, the women's brains were scanned.
Researchers compared those scans to pinpoint sources of
The researchers found that when the woman without limbs watched
videos of tasks being performed using body parts that she did not
have, the sensory-motor areas of her brain were still strongly
engaged. The researchers noted, however, even without limbs, the
woman was able to perform some of these tasks herself by
improvising with the body parts she did have.
If the action was impossible for her however, another set of
brain regions involved in deductive reasoning were also activated,
the study pointed out.
The intuitive and rationalizing parts of the brain work together
to create the sensation of empathy, said Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant
professor of USC's Division of Occupational Science and
Occupational Therapy in a university news release. "People do it
automatically," she said.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
provides more information on
the brain and how it works.
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