Most people would agree that one of the basic traits of being human is the capacity for empathy.
Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and a recent study from the University of Virginia suggests that we are powerfully hardwired to empathize, for the reason that we closely associate people who are close to us, like spouses, friends, lovers, with our own selves.
“With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves,” said psychology professor James Coan “Our self comes to include the people we feel close to.”
Coan used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans (fMRI) to discover that we closely correlate people to whom we are attached to ourselves. In other words, our self-identity is mostly based on whom we know and empathize with.
22 adult volunteers underwent fMRI brain scans in experiments to monitor brain activity while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves or to a friend or stranger. As was expected, researchers found that areas of the brain responsible for threat response, the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus, became active under threat of shock to the self.
Keep your Friends Close
When the threat of shock was to a stranger, those brain regions showed little activity. But when the threat of shock was to a friend, brain activity of the participant became basically equal to the activity shown under threat to the self.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” -Arabian Proverb
“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.”
According to Coan, this is likely for the reason that humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. As people spend more time together, they become more similar.
Survival, Self and Other
“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.
A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” he continued. “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.”
Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat
Lane Beckes, James A. Coan and Karen Hasselmo
Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2013) 8(6): 670-677.doi: 10.1093/scan/nss046