Laugh together, cry together
You probably know it, someone else stubs their toe and not only she but you too are shocked by the pain. Or when Mufasa dies in ‘The Lion King’, you as a viewer immediately feel sad. How come? Our empathic capacity is responsible for this, which ensures that we humans can empathize with others around us. We use our empathy more often in a day than you might think: to comfort your child when he or she spills his milk during breakfast, to support your colleague during an exciting presentation at work or to promote the promotion of celebrating your best friend in the cafe at night. So empathy is incredibly useful and important in our lives, but how does it work in our brains?
That’s exactly what Valeria Gazzoala and her research group were wondering. Valeria is a researcher specializing in brain research and she focuses on discovering which areas of our brain are involved in our capacity for empathy. Valeria researches emotional contagion, among other things, this is one form of empathy. An example is when you feel the pain when someone else stubs their toe. You then take over his feeling and you become ‘infected’ by it. The brain regions amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex play the main role in our emotional contagion1. Our amygdala is a brain region that is active in processing and controlling our emotions2. The brain region of the anterior cingulate cortex is part of our cerebral cortex, another word for cortex, that helps us register pain but also makes decisions3. A very logical combination when we talk about empathy.
Figure 1 The amygdala is a brain region located in the centre of our brain. The anterior cingular cortex is part of the prefrontal cortex or prefrontal cerebral cortex. The prefrontal cerebral cortex, and therefore also the cerebral cortex circulars anterior, is located at the front of our brain, in the outer layer of our brain4.
Always thought that humans are the only ones who can be empathetic? Then you are very wrong!
“I’m not sure if we can say that rats reason everything completely and are completely aware of their actions, but the fact is that they spontaneously start helping others and that makes me very excited,” told Valeria. In rodents such as rats, but also in macaques, the brain regions amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex play an important role in emotional contagion.
Figure 2 This figure depicts emotional contagion. The left picture shows that a rat’s reaction to seeing the danger, in this case, a cat, is to freeze or hide. In the second picture, you can see that the dark grey rat also shows a fear reaction, namely freezing, without seeing any danger itself. The dark grey rat shows this fear response as a response to the fear response of the white rat. The white rat can see danger itself, a cat. The dark grey rat takes over the emotional state of the white rat5.
Another key player in our capacity for empathy would be mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a small group of neurons, brain cells, that have been discovered in our motor cortex. Our motor cortex is responsible for all the movements we see happening, but also all the movements we want to perform 6. Why mirror neurons are associated with empathy Valeria explains to me “They can help with emotional contagion because they activate your own experiences when viewing someone else’s experiences.”. Much is still unknown about mirror neurons. “We don’t know yet why mirror neurons are developed, why we have them and what their role is,” adds Valeria. So maybe mirror neurons play more of a supporting role in our capacity for empathy.
Emotional contagion is one of the forms of empathy. However, you can express empathy in different ways. Examples include recognizing someone else’s emotional state, making someone happy without benefiting you or being motivated to free someone from captivity, again without benefiting you1. In addition to the different forms of empathy, the degree of his or her empathic capacity also differs per individual. But no matter how good or how bad you are at it “Empathy, like everything else, can be taught. We are not either empathetic or not. We can train ourselves to take care of another and to try to think about how the other feels.” Valeria concluded with these beautiful words.
Our empathy is a puzzle that is being solved piece by piece. The puzzle piece that can now be added is about two main players in our capacity for empathy, the brain regions amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex. They play an important role in empathy in humans as well as in rodents and macaques. In addition, it is important to remember that empathy is something you can learn. So if some days it feels a little more difficult to comfort your child during breakfast, to give that one colleague a pep talk or to party with your best friend in the evening, I hope Valeria’s beautiful closing words can offer you support.
- Paradiso E, Gazzola V, Keysers C. Neural mechanisms necessary for empathy-related phenomena across species. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 2021;68:107-115. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2021.02.005
- Pessoa L. Emotion and cognition and the amygdala: From “what is it?” to “what’s to be done?” Neuropsychologia. 2010;48(12):3416-3429. doi:10.1016/J.NEUROPSYCHOLOGIA.2010.06.038
- Law AJ, Pei Q, Feldon J, Pryce CR, Harrison PJ. Gene expression in the anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala of adolescent marmoset monkeys following parental separations in infancy. Published online 2008. doi:10.1017/S1461145708009723
- New neuroimaging research helps explain why psychopaths lie effortlessly. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://www.psypost.org/2018/08/new-neuroimaging-research-helps-explain-why-psychopaths-lie-effortlessly-51909
- Keysers C, Gazzola V. Emotional contagion: Improving survival by preparing for socially sensed threats. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.100
- Cook R, Bird G, Catmur C, Press C, Heyes C. Mirror neurons: From origin to function. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2014;37(2):177-192. doi:10.1017/S0140525X13000903