I feel for you: the brain registers other people's pain the same as their own pain

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Why do we get sad when we see someone else cry? And why do we shudder when a friend cuts his finger? To find the answer to these questions, scientists at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience investigated the origin of empathy in the brains of rats. The research showed that the perception of other people's pain activates the same brain cells as the experience of one's own pain. With this study, the researchers are taking an important step towards understanding psychiatric disorders that underlie a lack of empathy. The findings were published on April 11 in the leading journal Current Biology.

Researchers found out that the brain lets us share the pain of others by activating the same cells that cause our own pain. The presence of these cells, also called mirror neurons, has not yet been demonstrated in the brain area that is involved in empathy.

Psychopathological disorders

"What is the most special," says Professor Christian Keysers, principal investigator of the study, "is that it appears that the same brain region is involved with empathy in rats as it is in humans. We had already discovered in humans that the activity of this brain region is increasing as we perceive the pain of others. Except for psychopathic criminals, they actually show a remarkable reduction in this activity. " Psychopathological disorders are often based on a lack of empathy, the ability to sympathize with the emotions of others. Because this research contributes to the knowledge about the mechanisms of empathy, it also contributes to the understanding of psychopathological disorders.

Empathy is deeply rooted

The study also shows that empathy is deeply rooted in our evolution. “The research shows that people share the fundamental mechanisms of empathy with animals such as rats. So far rats have not always enjoyed the highest moral reputation, but the next time you are tempted to call someone a rat it can be taken as a compliment ... "

Rat shares emotions of others

The scientists investigated the behavior and brain activity of rats who saw how another rat received an anxiety stimulus. The natural reaction of rats in an unpleasant situation is to "freeze" to prevent them from being traced by predators. The researchers discovered that rats also frozen when they saw that another rat was exposed to an unpleasant situation. This finding suggests that the observing rat shared the emotion of the other rat. It was also found that the rats activated the same brain cells when observing other people's pain as when experiencing their own pain. When researchers suppressed the activity of these brain cells, the rats no longer frozen, suggesting that these brain cells were specifically involved in the empathetic response.

Source: Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience press release. - Current biology article: “Emotional Mirrors in the Rat’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex" Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.03.024

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