Research evidence continues to mount that humans are hardwired for empathy and connection. Despite our surface differences and conflicts, both minor and major, we are one, beneath those differences, like organs of the same body. But we haven’t evolved enough quite yet to enact that truth. The latest research, from a University of Virginia study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, indicates that we experience people who we become close to as, essentially, our own selves.
“With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves,” said lead researcher James Coan. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans (fMRIs), the study found find that “Our self comes to include the people we feel close to.” He added, “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”
“It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” Coan said. “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.” And, “A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” he said. “Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal.”
The research underscores that humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And, as people spend more time together, they become more similar.
In my view, that indicates that our essential “sameness” emerges as we become familiar with people whom we initially experience as “different,” or threatening. Hopefully, we will continue to evolve in that directions before fear of “the other” and self-interest destroy us.
The research summary in Science News describes how the research was conducted:
Coan and his U.Va. colleagues conducted the study with 22 young adult participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains during experiments to monitor brain activity while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves or to a friend or stranger. The researchers found, as they expected, that regions of the brain responsible for threat response — the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus — became active under threat of shock to the self. In the case of threat of shock to a stranger, the brain in those regions displayed little activity. However when the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant became essentially identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self. “The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” Coan said. ” This likely is the source of empathy, and part of the evolutionary process.