April 8, 2003 -- You don't know a man until you've walked in his shoes. Indeed, what makes us empathize with others? What makes us feel the emotions that another person feels -- the joy, sadness, pain? UCLA researchers say they've uncovered the brain mechanism that governs empathy.
Using an advanced imaging technique, they found that empathic actions -- like mirroring someone's facial expressions -- trigger far greater activity in the emotion centers of the brain than merely observing the person's facial expressions.
This activity takes place in an oval-shaped section of the brain called the insula. It is key to translating the imitation of others' feelings into meaningful emotion, researchers say.
Their study appears in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers detail the exercises they conducted with 11 men and women. Each study participant was shown randomly ordered picture sets of six emotions -- happy, sad, angry, surprise, disgust, and afraid. They were asked to imitate and internally generate the same emotion -- or to simply observe.
During these exercises, researchers were monitoring their brain activity using functional MRI brain scans -- a brain imaging technique that shows brain activity while it is occurring. They found that similar overlapping areas of the brain were activated by both observation and imitation of facial expressions.
However, greater activity occurred in the primary motor cortex -- the area of the brain governing emotion -- during imitation of facial expressions.
"For years, scientists have observed the reflexive mimicking of a wince when someone suffers a painful injury, and the infectious nature of joy or anger," says researcher Marco Iacoboni, MD, neuroscientist at UCLA, in a news release.
"Our findings show for the first time how these reflexive facial expressions prompt our brain to heighten our empathy for the feelings of others," he says. "Understanding the mechanism for regulating empathy explains the continuum of empathy in humans, and also moves us closer to identifying ways to better control our emotional responses and reverse impairment caused by brain injury, illness, and age."
The research is especially important for understanding autism, which involves an inability to imitate or experience empathy, Iacoboni says.