Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Ability To Literally Imagine Oneself In Another's Shoes May Be Tied To Empathy

Date:
June 24, 2009
Source:
Vanderbilt University
Summary:
New research indicates the way our brain handles how we move through space -- including being able to imagine literally stepping into someone else's shoes -- may be related to how and why we experience empathy toward others.

This photo shows example stimuli from the perspective-taking task. Panel A. Back-facing condition; no perspective transformation is required. Panel B. Front-facing condition; requires imagined self-other transformation.
Credit: Katharine N. Thakkar

New research from Vanderbilt University indicates the way our brain handles how we move through space—including being able to imagine literally stepping into someone else's shoes—may be related to how and why we experience empathy toward others.

Related Articles


The research was recently published in the online scientific journal PLoS One.

Empathy involves, in part, the ability to simulate the internal states of others. The authors hypothesized that our ability to manipulate, rotate and simulate mental representations of the physical world, including our own bodies, would contribute significantly to our ability to empathize.

"Our language is full of spatial metaphors, particularly when we attempt to explain or understand how other people think or feel. We often talk about putting ourselves in others' shoes, seeing something from someone else's point of view, or figuratively looking over someone's shoulder," Sohee Park, report co-author and professor of psychology, said. "Although future work is needed to elucidate the nature of the relationship between empathy, spatial abilities and their potentially overlapping neural underpinnings, this work provides initial evidence that empathy might be, in part, spatially represented."

"We use spatial manipulations of mental representations all the time as we move through the physical world. As a result, we have readily available cognitive resources to deploy in our attempts to understand what we see. This may extend to our understanding of others' mental states," Katharine N. Thakkar, a psychology graduate student at Vanderbilt and the report's lead author, said. "Separate lines of neuroimaging research have noted involvement of the same brain area, the parietal cortex, during tasks involving visuo-spatial processes and empathy."

To test their hypothesis that empathy and spatial processes are linked, the researchers designed an experiment in which subjects had to imagine themselves in the position of another person and make a judgment about where this other person's arm was pointing. The task required the subject to mentally transform their body position to that of the other person.

"We expected that the efficiency with which people could imagine these transformations would be associated with empathy," Thakkar said. "Because we were interested in linking spatial ability with empathy, we also included a very simple task of spatial attention called the line bisection task. This test involves looking at a horizontal line and marking the midpoint. Although this task is very simple, it appears to be a powerful way to assess subtle biases in spatial attention."

The researchers compared performance on the test with how empathetic the subjects reported themselves to be. They found that higher self-reported empathy was associated with paying more attention to the right side of space. Previous research has found that the left side of the face is more emotionally expressive than the right side. Since the left side of the face would be on the right side of the observer, it is possible that attending more to the expressive side of people's faces would allow one to better understand and respond to their mental state. These findings could also point to a role of the left hemisphere in empathy.

The researchers also found that in the female subjects only, the more empathetic people rated themselves, the longer they took to imagine themselves in the position of the person on the screen. Previous work has shown that women generally report more empathy than men and perform worse on tests of visuo-spatial abilities.

"Although it is somewhat counterintuitive that taking more time to imagine another's physical perspective was associated with more reported empathy, people who were slower at the task might have been engaging more resources to imagine another's mental state, or may be using a slower and less automatic strategy on the task," Park said.

Peter Brugger, Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland, co-authored the paper. Park is an investigator in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. The research was funded by ThinkSwiss, the National Association for the Research of Schizophrenia and Depression and the National Institute of Mental Health.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Vanderbilt University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Vanderbilt University. "Ability To Literally Imagine Oneself In Another's Shoes May Be Tied To Empathy." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 June 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090623120837.htm>.
Vanderbilt University. (2009, June 24). Ability To Literally Imagine Oneself In Another's Shoes May Be Tied To Empathy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 26, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090623120837.htm
Vanderbilt University. "Ability To Literally Imagine Oneself In Another's Shoes May Be Tied To Empathy." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090623120837.htm (accessed November 26, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Mind & Brain News

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Are Female Bosses More Likely To Be Depressed?

Are Female Bosses More Likely To Be Depressed?

Newsy (Nov. 24, 2014) — A new study links greater authority with increased depressive symptoms among women in the workplace. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Winter Can Cause Depression — Here's How To Combat It

Winter Can Cause Depression — Here's How To Combat It

Newsy (Nov. 23, 2014) — Millions of American suffer from seasonal depression every year. It can lead to adverse health effects, but there are ways to ease symptoms. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Your Genes Be The Reason You're Single?

Could Your Genes Be The Reason You're Single?

Newsy (Nov. 21, 2014) — Researchers in Beijing discovered a gene called 5-HTA1, and carriers are reportedly 20 percent more likely to be single. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Milestone Birthdays Can Bring Existential Crisis, Study Says

Milestone Birthdays Can Bring Existential Crisis, Study Says

Newsy (Nov. 21, 2014) — Researchers find that as people approach new decades in their lives they make bigger life decisions. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins