measuring empathy

BBC TV tonight showed a programme in the series “The Brain: A Secret History”. After reviewing experiemental work on fear and love, it moved to the topic of empathy. Cut to Dr Christian Keysars, of the Spinoza Center, University of Amsterdam, who is using brain scanning to investigate empathy.

The presenter was put inside the scanner and his brain was imaged as he first watched videos of someone else in pain and then was whacked on the hand by a researcher.  He also completed a questionnaire where he estimated his responses to others. Comparing these three was revealing.

The scans showed different levels of ‘lighting up’, much stronger when feeling his own pain than when observing others. Apparently his empathy was lower than average – it’s interesting that  individual variation in empathy is clearly measurable. Also interesting was the fact that, in the questionnaire, the presenter had reported himself as much more empathic than his scans showed. He said, using a metaphor, “…I don’t have much insight”.

They summarised: Empathy is deeply embedded in our mind; we don’t just ‘see’ other people’s pain or joy, but experience it, “go through” it. We are social in nature. The people around us are not just around us but IN us.

The programme can be seen (in UK) on the BBC iPlayer for the next week.

One Response to “measuring empathy”
  1. loni says:

    nice way to summarization…about how people are not just around us but are in us. i second that!

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