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What Part of the Brain Controls Empathy?

The word empathy is of Greek origin “empátheia” which means ” affected “. Empathy is the intention to understand feelings and emotions, to try to experience objectively and rationally what another person feels. But what part of the brain controls empathy?

A mirror neuron is a nerve cell that is activated in two specific situations when the individual performs an action and observes primarily someone performing the same action, which can activate these neurons through visual and auditory stimuli.

According to psychology, empathy is the psychological or cognitive ability to feel or perceive what another person would feel if in the same situation as that person. Psychologists believe that empathy is already developing during childhood, but it is in adulthood when it settles. As experiences and experiences accumulate, understanding others is less difficult.

*** Emotions are ContagiousWhat Part of the Brain Controls Empathy?

We are very suggestible. So much so that the mood of others can affect us and change our mood. When someone with whom we work is sad and his face conveys this sadness to us, we are not only able to know that something is wrong, but our mood can also be affected; and it is that empathy allows us not only to know what the other person thinks, it also allows us to put ourselves in his place, in his situation.

It has also been proven that forcing laughter can make you feel better. Simply simulating the emotion of joy will make you feel better. The same goes for a group of friends who keep joking and, even if you spend a horrible day, you will surely be taken by their contagious laughter.

Since the emotions of others can be very contagious and affect us, exposing ourselves to actions that others perform can also be, especially at an early age. For example, exposure to violence in children on television may increase the degree of violence in their behavior, because we tend to mimic what we see, taking into account that we are not robots and that we can choose our actions.

Empathy is closely linked to the way everyone regulates their emotions. Those who are better at managing their mood are more likely to empathize and react in a balanced way.

Empathic People Tend to like More

Empathy is modulated by factors such as the relationship between people, personality, each person’s emotional story, and the cultural context of reference. Empathic people tend to like more because they immediately understand what is happening to others, have more listening and compassion, act more effectively, and are more persuasive.

However, there are topics that are totally lacking in empathy. They cannot put themselves in others’ shoes and keep them at bay. This is the case of narcissistic, antisocial, haunting, or ultimately self-centered personalities. And, of course, psychopaths who interact with others, regardless of suffering.

Some People Suffer from Excessive Empathy

Other people suffer from excessive empathy. They are too suggestible. They end up exhausted, especially if they are in charge of other people; it is the fatigue of compassion. They run the risk of becoming emotionally disconnected from themselves or taking on the problems of others as their own vicarious trauma.

Each person shows different levels of empathy in the same situation, but there are also coincidences. Thus, individuals are more affected by the misfortunes that occur within their social group. Nationality, age, sex, etc. determine the level of emotional involvement.

I – Are the Mirror Neurons the Answer to the Question What Part of the Brain Controls Empathy?

What are mirror neurons? Mirror neurons are linked to empathic, social, and imitative behaviors and are a fundamental tool for learning.

These are brain cells that fulfill the mission of reflecting on our brain what we observe. Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons, which primates have, which are activated both when we perform an action and when we see another doing it. Mirror neurons allow us to “reproduce” not only the actions of other people but also the intentions and emotions that underlie them. So mirror neurons are evidently the answer to the question of what part of the brain controls empathy?

*** Role of Mirror Neurons

The role of mirror neurons in empathic behaviors, such as adopting facial gestures and postures in interactive imitation behaviors, is fundamental, as is emotional adoption (limbic system).

Empathy is supported by a large-scale neural network composed of the mirror neuron system, the limbic system, and the insula, which functions as a connecting node between the two systems. Within this network, mirror neurons provide the simulation of facial expressions and gestures observed in others in low-level treatment areas, via the insula, which causes activity in these areas. And finally, it produces an emotional state in the observer of observed behavior. In this way, an alternative system of emotions is proposed to the subject, based on simulation, which partly allows social cognition.

In the mirror neuron system and its relation to empathy, it is necessary to make a distinction: understanding and simulating emotions is not the only stage of social cognition, because the person’s stable personality must be taken into account in order to make predictions.

Mirror neurons fire in the same way when we perform an action as when we watch someone perform it. The fact that our brain reacts, in the same way, explains learning by imitation, emulation, and also empathy, since we live the action of others like ours and this helps us to understand it.

When these specialized neurons are activated, other areas of the brain do, like the limbic system. In this way, they allow us to recognize the gestures of the face, access our memories and our previous learning, and combine all this information to interpret the situation and make sense of it.

*** Understand Sensations and Emotions

Thanks to this mechanism, we are not only able to observe an action, an emotion, or a sensation but also to make internal representations of the corporal states associated with these actions, emotions and sensations, being able to evoke a similar action or live an emotion or a similar sensation.

The particularity of these cells is that they allow us not only to reflect what we see in us at the motor level but also at the emotional level. These neurons are connected to the limbic system – related to the regulation of emotions, memory, and attention -. Some studies show that children who mimic and observe facial expressions have greater activation of these neurons and the greater the activation of these neurons, the greater their empathy. This happens because if the child sees someone smile, his mirror neurons create an internal simulation of that smile in his brain, they send these signals to the limbic system and end up feeling the same as the person who smiles.

Therefore, in the period of learning behaviors and emotional reactions, observing and imitating the reactions of those around us are necessary, which ultimately configures our own experience.

Mirror neurons also reflect the emotions of others in our brain, not just their actions. It is vitally important to understand why we are moved in front of a theatrical performance, a movie when reading a novel or a story in the case of children. And the same thing happens at the moment of learning.

*** Mirror Neurons and Learning

Neuroscientists assume that these neurons play an important role in cognitive abilities related to social life, such as empathy – the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes – and imitation. – fundamental in learning processes -. As a result, some scientists believe that mirror neuron is one of the most important discoveries of neuroscience in the last decade.

Mirror neurons are essential for us to imitate others, a key element of learning. In different disciplines such as sports or language learning, imitation is essential.

From birth, this group of neurons is active and allows us to learn to eat, dress, to talk … Mirror neurons also play a very important role in the planning of our actions and in the understanding of the intentions that exist after the acts of others. Human beings are born with mechanisms that allow us to imitate the actions we perceive. Very young, with only a few days of life, we are able to represent facial expressions that facilitate our socialization; and in a few weeks, we can already manifest basic emotions such as joy or anger.

The Mission of These Cells Is to Reflect the Activity We Observe

They are activated when we perform a given action, but also when we observe another individual performing the same action. They allow to “reflect” the action of another in our own brain, hence their name.

The name given to this type of neuron says a lot about who they are. They are activated, for example, when we see someone doing something. When they do, they allow our brain to reflect the same pattern of activation as that of the person performing the action. That is, for our brain, it’s like doing what the other does so that it works like a mirror.

When we hear someone speak and we see him gesticulate, our mirror neurons are activated to control the tongue and lips during speech. The regions of the brain that control the muscles of the voice (in the larynx) are as active as if we were talking to ourselves. Even before the acquisition of language, humans were already using these specialized cells to communicate and interpret the gesture as a rudimentary means of communication.

*** Mirror Neurons and Empathy

Empathy is the ability of our emotional brain to read or perceive the thoughts and feelings of others. Developing it allows us to feel the emotions of others as if they were ours, to understand their psyche, and to provide the support or performance that a person needs.

Empathy is one of the fundamental qualities of our human condition because we are essentially social beings.

It is important to distinguish between empathy and sympathy, for although we may sympathetically perceive the feelings of others, it does not allow us to understand them.

Similar to Mathematical Equations or Parsing

Empathy involves understanding and experiencing the emotional states of others as if they were ours. Sensitivity to capturing nonverbal messages is something that must be practiced in the same way that we practice mathematical equations or parsing.

Empathy also has one of its pillars in the mirror neuron system. They not only help to reflect the actions observed but also to make sense and participate in an interpretation of each event, allowing us to build more or less reliable theories, depending on the richness of our experience, the intentions, and the inner world of other people.

Without empathy, not only could we not understand what our son means when he tells us that he is hungry or afraid of the dark, but we could not be passionate about watching a movie or even feel anything interesting for the person closest to us.

Mirror neurons allow us to literally feel what others feel, to “live” their emotions. Mirror neurons are the basis of empathy.

II – Mirror Neurons – How Empathy Affects the Brain

A team of researchers at the University of Colorado, USA, in a study published in Neuron in June 2017, reveals that two types of emotional empathy, compassion, and anxiety, activate different areas of the brain.

The team examined the brains of 66 volunteers while listening to real stories of human tragedies, with different outcomes.

The volunteers also had to evaluate how each story made them feel separate, without any scanner. The first great discovery was that there is no region of the brain in which empathy develops, but a network that unites different areas.

The brain is not a modular system where there is an area in charge of empathy. It’s a distributed process. The same regions involved in the evaluation of food or money appear to be involved in the study when assessing the well-being of others.

But not all stories linked the same regions and, in fact, generated two types of schema, between those that brought together “solidarity and compassion” with those that caused “empathic anguish”. In the first case, areas of the brain such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the orbito-frontal medial cortex have been activated, in relation to the processes with which the brain gives value to something.

Stories About Homeless Veteran Aroused More Anxiety Than Compassion

On the other hand, stories such as the homeless veteran aroused more anxiety than compassion and, as a result, activated other areas, such as the pre-motor cortex or the primary somatosensory cortex. known to participate in the processes called the mirror.

The brain is not a modular system where there is an area in charge of empathy. It’s a distributed process. The same regions involved in the evaluation of food or money appear to be involved in the study when assessing the well-being of others.

But not all stories linked the same regions and, in fact, generated two types of schema, between those that brought together “solidarity and compassion” with those that caused “empathic anguish”. In the first case, areas of the brain such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the orbito-frontal medial cortex have been activated, in relation to the processes with which the brain gives value to something.

On the other hand, stories such as the homeless veteran aroused more anxiety than compassion and, as a result, activated other areas, such as the pre-motor cortex or the primary somatosensory cortex known to participate in the processes called a mirror.

III – Our Cerebral Response to the Good News of Others Depends on Empathy

According to a study by researchers at the University College of London (UCL), published in the October 2015 Journal of Neuroscience, the ability of the brain to respond to the good things experienced by others is determined by the ability of empathy.

Research assigns to a specific part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), as the area particularly attentive to the good news that affects others.

His response varies greatly depending on the level of empathy. In people who are considered very empathetic, the anterior cingulate cortex reacts only to the good things that happen to others, while in less empathic subjects, the ACC also reacts to bad news that is specific to it.

Brain Mechanisms That Produce Behavioral Disorders

The study demonstrates the relevance of this part of the brain in disorders related to social behaviors, such as psychopathy and autism. It could also be a starting point for studying the brain mechanisms that produce behavioral disorders in response to own or others’ successes.

To carry out this study, the researchers scanned by magnetic resonance imaging, the brain of 30 volunteers aged 19 to 32 years, subject to the contemplation of images predicting, for them or for the others, the chances to make money. Participants also completed a quiz that assessed their level of empathy a week before their resonance.

The researchers explained that the region of the anterior cingulate cortex was always activated in all participants when another person was going to make money. However, activation was greater in individuals considered more empathic.

IV – Empathy Has Its Own Areas of the Brain –  So, What Part of the Brain Controls Empathy?

According to a team of scientists from Monash University in Australia, in a study published in NeuroImage in June 2015, Types of empathy grant different brains physically.

For these scientists, the discovery would raise some hypotheses, such as the possibility that empathy will increase over time – causing physical changes in the brain – or that we may even see empathy disappear over time.

The researchers found that people with “emotional empathy” reacted strongly to another person’s feelings or thoughts because the gray matter of these people is denser in a given brain region than those who express cognitive empathy “, that is, individuals who have a more logical response to another emotional and less sentimental state.

To reach these conclusions, the scientists studied 176 people using a neuroimaging technique called “voxel-based morphometry”, in which the gray matter density of their brain was analyzed. The objective was to determine the degree of emotional empathy or cognitive empathy of the participants.

The density of gray matter, the key to differentiating empathy. The findings of the study were that people with high affective empathy had a higher density of gray matter in the insular cortex, just in the center of the brain. On the other hand, those with high cognitive empathy also had a higher density of gray matter in the medio-cingular cortex, just above the connection between the two cerebral hemispheres.

The researchers concluded that empathy could be lost or altered if the above areas of the brain were injured or altered. It would also explain why there are people who do not have empathy or others who have too much.

These results confirm that empathy is a set of components, suggesting that emotional empathy and cognitive empathy are morphologically represented and differentiated in the brain.

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