For some reason I’m fascinated when hard science meets squishy philosophy. Last week we discussed altruism in evolutionary terms. This week: what can fMRI scans and cranial electrodes tell us about empathy?
Definitions of empathy typically include sensitivity about what happens to others (“affective response”). In one experiment, mice were given painful electric shocks when put in a cage, generating a “fear response” (wigging out whenever they’re put in the cage). Mice placed in an adjacent cage also developed fear responses, just from watching. And the response was stronger among sibling mice, even stronger with mating partners. This suggests an empathetic, and not simply reflexive, response. (Empathy of the researchers electrifying innocent mice apparently was not measured.)
Another component of empathy is the capacity to understand another’s perspective. In 1991, neuroscientists accidentally discovered neurons that fired both when macaques picked up peanuts, and when they watched scientists pick up peanuts. Since doing and watching are different, you’d expect different neurons to fire. But for these “mirror” neurons, they were indistinguishable. V. S. Ramachandran explains that you only know the difference because your senses provide feedback when you act. Conversely, if you see someone’s arm touched when your arm is anaesthetized, you think you’ve been touched. So we empathize partly because we’re wired to think your actions are mine, unless our senses tell us otherwise.
But empathy isn’t just an instinctive reaction. There are also “top-down” aspects regulating empathy. For example, in one study where people were showed images of hands being injured, empathy declined when people were distracted by the task of counting the images. Another measured less empathy in men witnessing pain in cheaters (but not women).
Some find neurological descriptions of behavior like empathy to be disconcerting. Does a biological explanation replace ethics and morality? I think not. The more we know about how we’re wired, the better we can override our biases with our big-brained judgment.
Note: two good summaries of the neuroscience of empathy: