Human brains are hardwired for empathy, friendship, study shows

by Fariss Samarrai
U.Va. psychologist James A. Coan conducted the study. "People close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real," he said. Credit: Dan Addison

Perhaps one of the most defining features of humanity is our capacity for empathy – the ability to put ourselves in others' shoes. A new University of Virginia study strongly suggests that we are hardwired to empathize because we closely associate people who are close to us – friends, spouses, lovers – with our very selves.

"With , other people become part of ourselves," said James Coan, a U.Va. in the College of Arts & Sciences who used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to find that people closely correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves. The study appears in the August issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

"Our self comes to include the people we feel close to," Coan said.

In other words, our self-identity is largely based on whom we know and empathize with.

Coan and his U.Va. colleagues conducted the study with 22 young adult participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains during experiments to monitor brain activity while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves or to a friend or stranger.

The researchers found, as they expected, that regions of the brain responsible for threat response – the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – became active under threat of shock to the self. In the case of threat of shock to a stranger, the brain in those regions displayed little activity. However when the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant became essentially identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.

"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."

Coan said this likely is because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And as people spend more time together, they become more similar.

"It's essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to," Coan said. "If a 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."

This likely is the source of , and part of the evolutionary process, Coan reasons.

"A threat to ourselves is a to our resources," he said. "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."

People need friends, Coan added, like "one hand needs another to clap."

More information: scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/8/6/670.full'

Related Stories

Whether human or hyena, there's safety in numbers

Apr 23, 2013

Humans, when alone, see threats as closer than they actually are. But mix in people from a close group, and that misperception disappears. In other words, there's safety in numbers, according to a new study by two Michigan ...

Fear: A justified response or faulty wiring?

Jun 04, 2013

Fear is one of the most primal feelings known to man and beast. As we develop in society and learn, fear is hard coded into our neural circuitry through the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped nuclei of neurons within the medial ...

Confronting meaninglessness

Sep 12, 2011

You've just finished an amazing dinner at your favorite restaurant and you are ready to put on your comfy pajamas and slip into sweet slumber. You arrive at your doorstep and find the front door ajar. Your heart beats wildly ...

Recommended for you

Gender disparities in cognition will not diminish

7 hours ago

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, investigated the extent to which improvements in living conditions and educational opportunities over a person's life affect cognitive abilities and th ...

Facial features are the key to first impressions

7 hours ago

A new study by researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of York shows that it is possible to accurately predict first impressions using measurements of physical features in everyday images of faces, such ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PoppaJ
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 22, 2013
Dubious, I am hardwired to eat, sleep and protect my resources. Not to experience emotionally another persons situation. If humans were hardwired for empathy we probably would not have invented torture.
Birger
4.3 / 5 (3) Aug 22, 2013
We torture because we objectify outsiders as "the other".
Empathy is useful inside the tribe,
People without empathy are psychopats, and have few positive assets to bring to a community.
zaxxon451
5 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2013
"People without empathy are psychopats, and have few positive assets to bring to a community."

Agreed. The rich ones are known as CEO's. The poor ones are just called criminals.
beleg
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2013
'Hard wiring' as part of the evolutionary process...makes no sense in any evolutionary context.
baudrunner
not rated yet Aug 25, 2013
I recall reading an article a few years ago on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study in which it was discovered that a small percentage of male subjects showed no pre-frontal cortical neural processing regardless of the type of stimulation that they were subjected to. DNA analysis revealed that these males had an extra Y chromosome, and that the X chromosome was but an atrophied remnant of a normal X chromosome. It was concluded that the extra Y displaced the X in those subjects, rendering it useless in its role in gene transcription. The average Y chromosome has about 150 or so genes, and the average X chromosome has over 3,000 genes. Absence of pre-frontal cortical neural processing removes empathy and associated attributes from the individual.

However, it is wrong to conclude that XY males have few positive assets to bring to a community. Their brains can be more efficient and unbiased by emotion. They just need more attention given to their upbringing.