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Biology 202, Spring 2005
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MK McGovern

Empathy is the ability to understand the internal experiences of another (11). It's the underlying mechanism that makes the outcome of sports events, movies, or video games interesting. It is the basic human characteristic that connects individuals, allowing for successful interactions and communication. When empathy is lacking, conditions such as autism can create a sense of separation in the individual, isolating her/him from others (2). Even minor differences in empathy levels can create very different approaches to communication. The stereotypical "collaborative" approach of women versus the "competitive" approach of men could be attributed to different levels of empathy between the sexes (16). As a fundamental component of communication, empathy allows people to understand each other, learn from each other, and live with each other. This paper examines the physiological basis for empathy, its adaptive benefits, and its connection to gender differences.

While the definition of empathy might be generally agreed upon, the underlying mechanism of empathy is currently a hot topic in scientific research. One theory, creatively named the "theory theory," proposes an analytical, evidential basis for empathy. People understand others' current actions using analysis based on previous experience of similar actions. Simulation theory, on the other hand, explains empathy by the modeling of others' experiences in one's own mind, i.e. putting one's self in another's shoes (8).

The recent discovery of "mirror neurons" in several areas of the brain has lent support to the simulation theory of empathy. Mirror neurons are so named because they fire not only when one is performing an action, but also when one is observing another perform that action. Essentially, mirror neurons allow one to experience what another is experiencing without going through the motions oneself. One's familiarity with the observed action impacts the activity of the mirror neurons, e.g. ballet dancers will have more mirror neuron activity when watching ballet than when watching another type of dance (2). Nevertheless, mirror neurons provide a powerful mechanism for understanding the actions of others, and thus a possible physiological basis for empathy.

In order to further clarify the role of mirror neurons in empathy, scientists have measured their activity in several contexts. One aspect of empathy is the ability to understand another's intentions. Mirror neurons are only activated when a goal-oriented action is observed, and only when that action is performed by a body part (rather than a tool, for example). This suggests a connection between mirror neurons and the ability to infer the potential movements of others (3). In addition, mirror neurons are more active when an goal-oriented action is viewed in a context which gives additional clues to an intention. For example, greater mirror neuron activity is present when a hand is observed picking up a cup in a dirty, disorganized environment than in a neutral environment, indicating a further inference, e.g. the person intends to clean up (5).

Another aspect of empathy, the ability to feel what another is feeling, also reflects the importance of mirror neurons. Brain areas activated when one is in pain are also activated when one observes another's pain. The anterior insula and anterior cingulate are activated in both cases, and higher empathy scores are correlated with greater activation (12). Interestingly, the anterior insula and anterior cingulate do not make up the entire "pain matrix," so more areas of the brain are activated when one is in pain than when one is observing another in pain (13). Perhaps it is not necessary or possible to fully experience another's physical pain. The effect of empathy is achieved without the distraction that additional activation of the pain matrix might create, where one's concern for one's own welfare might take precedence over attention to another's. The anterior insula and the anterior cingulate are also activated both when an emotion is observed and when it is felt, e.g. disgust, indicating that observation of an emotion creates a mental model of that emotion in the observer (14). The differences in brain activity between actual experience and observation could reflect the purpose of empathy, i.e. to understand another's experience. This understanding can be achieved without full immersion in another's feelings or experience, hence mirror neurons create a "reflection" of another's experience rather than completely recreating that experience.

This ability to understand one another is one of the main benefits empathy provides. It allows the social world to be translated and interpreted, and this knowledge can then be used to construct a neural representation of one's social environment (2). From an evolutionary standpoint, it could provide an especially efficient method for changing phenotypic behavior. Fitness is not just passed on genetically, but by means of communication and imitation. For example, if one person has some genetic difference that enables her/him to figure out how to catch a fish, that knowledge can be shared with others, and learned by others, even if they don't have the same genetic difference. Empathy provides an advantage in learning by facilitating communication, understanding, and imitation (2). Each individual is not required to solve every problem, but can observe others' experiences. Seeing another person in pain could lead one to avoid a dangerous activity without having to experience it personally to understand the risk (6). In fact, empathy may be the precursor to language. Mirror neurons are found in Broca's area, which is traditionally associated with language. This location may indicate a mirror neuron role in making humans "language-ready" by providing an initial method of understanding each other or communicating (4).

The importance of empathy is particularly apparent in disorders such as autism, where the ability to form social relationships and communicate with others is impaired. A recent study has found a link between mirror neurons and autism. In non-autistic people, EEG observation shows the suppression of mu waves both when performing an action and observing an action (4). In autistic children, mu waves are only suppressed when performing an action, not when observing an action. Since mu wave suppression is correlated with the mirror neuron system, the lack of suppression in autistic children implies a dysfunctional mirror neuron system (9). This suggests incorporating mirror neuron stimulation into therapeutic programs for autism may lead to improvement.

Interestingly, autism is significantly more prevalent in males than females. In fact, some scientists suggest that the capacity for empathy is a critical cognitive difference between men and women. In general, women tend to score higher on empathy tests, and men score higher on system-oriented tests. High levels of testerone in utero have been associated with anti-social behavior similar to that found in autistic children. Possibly autism is just an extreme version of the "male" brain, but then further explanation is required to understand the existence of autistic females (6). In addition, if empathy is beneficial and advantageous to the species, then high levels would be selected for, regardless of gender, and one would expect to see equal levels in men and women.

The disparity in empathy levels between men and women may be related to the evolutionary disparity in their offspring investment. Females produce fewer gametes than men, they provide energy to their offspring during gestation, and they have a certainty of genetic relation. These factors combined could make it especially advantageous to women to have a high level of empathy in order to protect and care for their genetic investment, i.e. their offspring (11). Structurally, female brains have several variations that could be correlated with higher empathy levels. Parts of the limbic cortex (which regulates emotional responses) are larger in women, a possible indication of relative importance. Women also have a greater density of neurons in parts of the brain associated with language processing and comprehension (18). Since mirror neurons have been found in areas of the brain associated with language, it would be interesting to see if the greater levels of empathy in women are associated with a greater number of mirror neurons in Broca's area.

With all the benefits that empathy provides, it seems that women would have an advantage over men due to their higher levels of empathy. However, throughout history, men have generally held the positions of power in society. Perhaps too much empathy is actually a disadvantage. If one must inflict pain to achieve power, then empathy could act as an obstacle. A certain amount of empathy is necessary to understand an opponent's intentions, and it is necessary to have an understanding of pain in order to realize its strategic usefulness. Perhaps it is in the application of this knowledge that the sexes differ. The lower levels of empathy in a male could lead him to destroy or dominate, while the higher levels of empathy in a female might lead her to please or appease. In general, men and women desire different outcomes in their interactions. Men seek to keep or attain the upper hand, while women seek to achieve consensus and closeness (16). It's possible that achieving a position of power actual costs women more than men since women would feel the pain of those who lost power more acutely. However, it may be that the mechanism underlying empathy is slightly different in each gender, and it is not just the levels of empathy, but also the processing of empathetic experiences that differs between genders.

It has already been discovered that men and women solve problems differently, respond to stress differently, and process emotional memory differently (18). Future research on mirror neurons and empathy should include comparisons between male and female brains in terms of mirror neuron location, activity level, and density. In addition, it would be interesting to see if higher levels of stress are correlated with higher levels of empathy, and if there is any difference in the way this stress is processed between men and women.

As the mechanistic underpinnings of empathy are unraveled, a greater understanding of human interactions will be achieved. Understanding how people communicate can illuminate ways to improve that communication, making interactions more productive. Gender differences in communication can be explored and understood in terms of empathetic processing, paving the way for future discussions on disparate gender representations in various environments.


Note that starred (*) sources are accessible only to Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore students through Tripod and double-starred (**) sources are informational, but not directly cited resources

1) McKinney, Merritt. (2003). "Brain Hard-Wired for Empathy.", online.**

2) "Mirror Neurons." (2005). NOVA, online.

3) Sylwester, Robert. "Mirror Neurons." (2002)., online.

4) Motluck, Allison. (2001). "Read My Mind." New Scientist, online.

5) Iacoboni, Marco, et al. "Grasping the Intentions of Others with One's Own Mirror Neuron System." (2005). PLOS Biology, online.

6) Bradshaw, J.L. and Mattingley, J.B. (2001). "Allodynia: a sensory analogue of motor mirror neurons in a hyperaesthetic patient reporting instantaneous discomfort to another's perceived sudden minor injury?" J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, online.

7) Carr, Laurie, et al. "Neural Mechanisms of Empathy in Humans: A Relay from Neural Systems for Imitation to Limbic Areas." (2003). PNAS, online.**

8) Than, Kerr. "Scientists Say Everyone Can Read Minds." (2005)., online.

9) "Autism Linked to Mirror Neuron Dysfunction." (2005). RxPG News, online.

10) Cohen, David. "Men, Empathy, and Autism." (2004). The Chronicle of Higher Education, online.

11) Hojat, Mohammadreza. "Development of Prosocial Behavior and Empathy In the Hand that Rocks the Cradle." (2004)., online.

12) Singer, Tania, et al. (2004). "Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain." Science, 303, 1157-1162.*

13) Jackson, Philip L., et al. (2004). "How Do We Perceive the Pain of Others? A Window into the Neural Processes Involved in Empathy." NeuroImage, 24, 771-779.*

14) Wicker, Bruce, et al. (2003). "Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula: The Common Neural Basis of Seeing and Feeling Disgust." Neuron, 40, 655-664.*

15) "Neuron Neuron on the Wall.", online.**

16) McKenna, Eddie, et al. "Competitive vs. Collaborative: Game Theory and Communication Games.", online.

17) Shen, Andrea. (2000). "Seminar: Stereotypes Persist about Women in Academia." Harvard University Gazette, online.**

18) Cahill, Larry. (2005). "His Brain, Her Brain." Scientific American, online.

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