The Seat of Empathic Bias

The Seat of Empathic Bias:

 Right supramarginal gyrus plays an important role in empathy


 News Editor Maria Kostyanaya

Proposed by Carl Rogers and his followers in the 1940s and 1950s, the concept of “empathy” as “the therapist’s sensitive ability and willingness to understand the client’s thoughts, feelings and struggles” (Rogers, 1980, p. 85) became an essential condition for most psychotherapeutic practices. Besides, it seems obvious that being able to “put ourselves in other peoples shoes” is extremely important for healthy coexistence.

We tend to project our emotional states onto others and use ourselves as scene starters for assessing the world around and fellow humans in particular. This phenomenon has already been recognized in research on cognition; however, its emotional level has been introduced only recently.

A research team supervised by Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences identified emotional egocentricity by demonstrating that our own emotional state can distort our understanding of other people’s emotions, especially when these are completely different to our own. The researchers showed that this egocentricity could be measured in a perception experiment where participants are exposed to either pleasant or unpleasant simultaneous visual and tactile stimuli. They also discovered the brain area responsible for the function of distinguishing 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 research members.


On the empathy trail with toy slime and synthetic fur

bigstock-Maggots-46848886In the researchers perception experiment participant number one, for example, would be presented with a picture of maggots while experiencing the feel of “slime” in her hand, participant number two was shown a picture of a puppy while feeling soft, fleecy fur on her skin. “It was important to combine the two stimuli. Without the tactile stimulus, the participants would only have evaluated the situation ‘with their heads’ and their feelings would have been excluded,” explains Claus Lamm. The participants could also see the stimulus to which their team partners were exposed at the same time

The participants were then asked to evaluate either their own emotions or those of their partners. As long as both participants were exposed to the same type of positive or negative stimuli, they found it easy to assess their partner’s emotions. The ones who were confronted with a stinkbug could easily imagine how unpleasant the sight and feeling of a spider must be for her partner.

bigstock-Labrador-Retriever-Cream-984336The capacity for empathy suddenly dropped in the cases where one partner was confronted with pleasant stimuli and the other with unpleasant ones. The participants’ own emotions distorted their assessment of the other person’s feelings. Thus, the participants who were feeling good themselves assessed their partners’ negative experiences as less severe than they actually were. By contrast, those who had an unpleasant experience assessed their partners’ good experiences less positively.

What about the brain?

Moving beyond the related research on mirror neurons (Watson, & Greenberg, 2009) the researchers located specific area of the brain responsible for this phenomenon with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging. The right supramarginal gyrus ensures that we can differentiate our perception of ourselves from that of others. When the neurons in this part of the brain were disrupted in the course of this task, the participants found it difficult not to project their own feelings onto others. In addition, the participants’ assessments were also less accurate when they were forced to make particularly quick decisions.

Up to now, the social neuroscience models have assumed that we mainly draw on our own emotions as a reference for empathy. This only works, however, if we are in a neutral state or the same state as our counterpart - otherwise, the brain must counteract and correct.


The source:

Journal Reference:

G. Silani, C. Lamm, C. C. Ruff, T. Singer. (2013). Right Supramarginal Gyrus Is Crucial to Overcome Emotional Egocentricity Bias in Social Judgments. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (39): 15466 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1488-13.2013

Additional References

Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Watson, J. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (2009). Empathic resonance: A neuroscience perspective. In In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 125–138). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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