Egoism and narcissism appear to be on the rise in our society, while empathy is on the decline. And yet, the ability to put ourselves in other people's shoes is extremely important for our coexistence. A research team headed by Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences has discovered that our own feelings can distort our capacity for empathy. This emotionally driven egocentricity is recognised and corrected by the brain. When, however, the right supramarginal gyrus doesn't function properly or when we have to make particularly quick decisions, our empathy is severely limited.
© MPI f. Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences/Silani et al., The Journal of Neuroscience 2013
Participants in an experiment (a): while the participants were exposed do either pleasant or unpleasant visual and tactile stimuli (b), they were asked to evaluate the emotions of their partners.
When assessing the world around us and our fellow humans, we use ourselves as a yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others. While cognition research has already studied this phenomenon in detail, nothing is known about how it works on an emotional level. It was assumed that our own emotional state can distort our understanding of other people's emotions, in particular if these are completely different to our own. But this emotional egocentricity had not been measured before now.
This is precisely what the Max Planck researchers have accomplished in a complex marathon of experiments and tests. They also discovered the area of the brain responsible for this function, which helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people. The area in question is the supramarginal gyrus , a convolution of the cerebral cortex which is approximately located at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. "This was unexpected, as we had the temporo-parietal junction in our sights. This is located more towards the front of the brain," explains Claus Lamm, one of the publication's authors.
On the empathy trail with toy slime and synthetic fur
Using a perception experiment, the researchers began by showing that our own feelings actually do influence our capacity for empathy, and that this egocentricity can also be measured. The participants, who worked in teams of two, were exposed to either pleasant or unpleasant simultaneous visual and tactile stimuli.