Empathy on the Brain

Story and Photo by Leah Eisenstadt

Neurology explains our fascination with reality TV

We're all interested in other people; it's human nature. We can experience emotions second-hand through storytelling, whether it's the sadness of loss, the disappointment of unrequited love, or the joy of a long-awaited reunion. Throughout history, people have shared the storytelling tradition around the campfire, on stage, on the big screen, and now, through reality television.

Today's most popular programs expose the lives of ordinary people with raw intensity. Reality TV comprises more than half the network programming in the United States, and nearly three-quarters in the world market, according to Nielsen Media Research. A 2001 Psychology Today survey showed that many viewers watch reality TV simply to fantasize that they, too, could become famous overnight. But the real reason could be hidden deep in our psyche - a hard-wired part of the brain that helps people relate to others.

In the early 1990s, a group of neuroscientists at the Universita di Parma, Italy identified, for the first time, so-called "mirror neurons" in the brains of monkeys. The researchers located a chunk of tissue that controls muscle movement, with neurons that fired when monkeys performed an action, such as grasping a cup. Surprisingly, the neurons also turned on when a monkey merely watched another monkey closing his hand around the cup, suggesting that these neurons also played a role in mirroring the actions of others. Later, the Italian team and other scientists searched for and found areas of the human brain with the ability to mirror movement.

Those initial experiments suggested that Survivor viewers might use mirror neurons to echo the feeling of a participant's actions, like reaching for and grasping a rope. Some began to wonder if another set of mirror neurons might exist to help viewers "feel" the roughness of the rope. Christian Keysers, a neuroscientist at the University Medical Center of Groeningen, The Netherlands, recently tested whether mirror neurons can also internalize the sensations of others. His research team placed subjects in an fMRI machine, which shows what parts of the brain are activated at any given point in time, and lightly brushed either the subject's leg or the leg of someone else while the subject watched. Four areas in the brain "turned on" during both the sensation of touch and the simple observation of touching another person, suggesting that in fact, mirror neurons exist both for actions like grasping and for sensation.

After locating mirror neurons for actions and sensation, the researchers wondered if mirror neurons played a role in something more subjective, like emotion. In the case of a knife slicing someone's finger, Keysers explained, the unfortunate person will feel the cold metal of the knife as it cuts the skin. But they also have a painful and emotional response. Watching someone experience this would cause most of us to instinctively grab our own finger, wincing in pain as though we have been cut, too. Because an ability to share in others' emotions might explain this, Keysers searched for mirror neurons that could relay emotions. "There is something magical in...us that allows us to intuitively understand other people," he said. "There is some part of the brain that interprets body language, effortlessly and instantly."

Keysers set out to examine the mirroring of disgust, an emotion that is easily recognized. (He wanted to study fear, but had difficulty getting approval from his university to scare people silly in the name of science). He first located the brain's pathway for experiencing aversion - a disgust-cortex activates when someone smells something revolting, such as rotten eggs. In fact, artificially stimulating this region with an electrode will cause unpleasant sensations and the desire to vomit. When subjects merely observed frowning faces expressing the feeling of disgust, those same brain areas were working, especially in the disgust cortex. Furthermore, people with lesions in this area have no aversion to eating a cookie covered in cockroaches and they cannot identify the expression of disgust on another person's face. Keysers had found that the disgust-cortex is also a disgust-mirroring-cortex.

Nearly all cultures of the world enjoy campfire tales, reading stories, and watching movies and television, because people are inherently interested in other people - their feelings, their thoughts, their desires. Keysers noted a film scene of a cringing James Bond, recoiling from a spider crawling up his bare chest. Instinctively, he said, viewers react by mimicking the agent's frightened face, drawing back with palm-sweating anxiety. With the ability to instantly understand Bond's sensations and emotions, merely by interpreting his facial muscles and his posture, the viewer in a sense participates in the character's up and downs.

Understanding the emotions and intentions of others is crucial for developing social skills and interpersonal relationships. Humans, monkeys, and other animals have communal skills that have helped those species continue; the presence of mirror neurons underscores how social abilities are essential for survival. A disruption of that process in the brain may play a role in psychological disorders like autism and Asperger's syndrome, diseases that inhibit a person's ability to express and understand emotion, often crippling them socially.

Neuroscientists have only begun to understand the complexity of mirror neurons. They relay others' actions, sensations, and emotions through the brain, but they are not the whole story. Researchers agree that more areas involving empathy probably exist in the brain, but unraveling the role of mirror neurons is a major piece of the puzzle. Mirror neurons may help explain some of our more mysterious cultural fads, and, more importantly, shed light on debilitating diseases that can strip people of the ability to interact with others.