What is the evolutionary function of empathy

Understanding Others - An Introduction

Jennifer Conner / Vetta / Getty Images

Understand what others are planning, thinking, feeling: Without empathy and empathy, togetherness would be impossible. Not all of them have the same skills in the neural skills. But only through them do we become social beings.

Scientific supervision: Prof. Dr. Claus Lamb

Published: 11/30/2011

Level: easy

  • The ability to understand plans and intentions (theory of mind) and to empathize with emotions is an important social characteristic of human beings.
  • Even small children show evidence of these abilities, but they presumably develop gradually as the brain develops and is raised.
  • The ability to theory of mind and empathy can vary from person to person, up to and including a complete lack of empathy, which is what distinguishes psychopaths.
  • The insular cortex in the brain seems to play an important role in empathy. However, other areas of the brain are also active.
  • The 'social neural network' is involved in the Theory of Mind. Whether mirror neurons are also relevant, and if so, how strong, is still being discussed.

Little Lisa is just a year and a half old. When she runs, she is still extremely shaky on her legs, and she is not quite able to speak either. And the environment regularly amazes them. Also this young man who has two boxes on the floor in front of him and places a small plush caterpillar in one of them before he leaves the room. It gets even stranger when a woman secretly puts the stuffed animal in the other box. She wants to play a prank on the man, she says, and tightly seals both boxes. Then the man is back, goes to the box he put his toy in and tries in vain to open it. A strange scenario. But also one in which little Lisa can show what she can do: When asked to help the man, the little one willingly starts running. Without hesitation, she tinkers with the other box - knowing that the coveted toy is hidden there. And not where the owner suspects it.

Empathy as an important social skill

To be able to sense the thoughts of others and to infer their intentions, plans and intentions from them is an important social skill. It is called Theory of Mind and is an essential prerequisite for conflict-free and cooperative interaction. Theory of Mind (Interactive Graphics)

If ToM describes - as scientists like to say - the ability to put oneself in the minds of a fellow human being, empathy is the analogue for emotional experience. In other words, the ability not only to infer the feelings of others, but also to empathize with them. Together, Theory of Mind and empathy form the basis for all concepts of humanity, compassion, compassion or the Christian concept of charity. Even the economist Adam Smith, one of the founders of classical economics, wrote in his book "Theory of ethical feelings" that a society without compassion is unthinkable, because without it no lasting relationships can develop.

Both skills seem to be firmly anchored in people. Infants cry when other children howl and get infected by their parents' laughter. And already at the age of one and a half to three years of age, the theory of mind seems to develop in small children, as the experiment described at the beginning by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig shows - even if it is difficult to examine the young subjects. After all, the little ones are usually not yet able to express themselves too differently about their world of thought.

This works better with adults, and so most of the studies on Theory of Mind and Empathy are devoted to the somewhat older semesters. With imaging methods such as functional magnetic resonance tomography, which uses the oxygen content of the blood to identify the different activity of brain areas, and unusual experimental set-ups, researchers try to trace the fundamentals of our social behavior. They show their test subjects pictures of laughing or crying people, give couples alternately light electric shocks or observe how the test subjects react to characters from computer games. The results of such experiments are sometimes astonishing.

Psychopaths lack empathy

For example, there seem to be people who can put themselves in the shoes of others very well, who are charming, who know exactly what the other person wants to hear - but who completely lack empathy, who therefore take no account of the feelings of others. We're talking about psychopaths. And if the researchers are to be believed, there is more of it than previously thought: many are probably living undetected among us. Because a psychopath does not always become violent or criminal. Sometimes their lack of empathy is even conducive to their careers, so that they can also be found in the executive suite.

On the other hand, there seem to be diseases that lead to an increased capacity for theory of mind. Schizophrenia patients, for example, are often characterized by excessive empathy, not only empathizing with people, but in extreme cases also with trees or stones. And depressed people seem to have a particularly strong feeling for the suffering of others, so they are particularly empathetic. In general, however, the following applies: Whether and how strongly we react empathically to someone varies from person to person - and depends on experience and upbringing. This is how real masters of empathy can develop. Specialists in empathy

The parent-child relationship is also based on the fundamental ability to empathy. © S. Kobold - Fotolia.com

Because all people, with a few exceptions, have the Theory of Mind and are compassionate towards others, researchers suspected early on that the ability to do this is inherited by Born Mind Readers. Studies on great apes corroborated this suspicion: Even our evolutionarily closest relatives are capable - to a limited extent - of the theory of mind. In the “Pongoland” in Leipzig Zoo, for example, chimpanzees have shown in some experiments that they can keep up with the empathy of small human children. Chimpanzee chess

Both the great apes and humans must be active in empathizing with other special areas of the brain. However, because great apes cannot easily be made to lie motionless in a brain scanner, neuroscientists focus primarily on studying human brain activity.

Neural foundations of compassion

They are exciting enough: Because the Theory of Mind does not only seem to involve an entire network of brain areas, which the scientists call a 'social neural network'. "Differences in these brain regions in adults can also explain differences in how we judge other people differently and how we think about them," says Rebecca Saxe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Our ability to empathize was also assigned to certain areas in the brain scanner. These include old friends such as the cingulate cortex and the amygdala, which has long been associated with emotion processing. But also brain regions that have hitherto been associated with other associations, such as the insular cortex, which studies show that it becomes active when we experience pain in others and then empathize with it. The neurobiology of compassion

In addition, a controversial star among the nerve cells may also have its axons in play: the mirror neurons. Many neuroscientists assume that these nerve cells, which fire when observing their own movements as well as when observing other people's movements, form a neural basis for empathy and the theory of mind. But this view is quite controversial. Because since their discovery, the mirror neurons have had to stand for many characteristics of the human pâté - whether yawning, cultural ability, language, cooperation or even empathy. Mirror, mirror in the brain

The role of mirror neurons has not yet been conclusively clarified. But this does not affect the overall performance: Without our ability to think into others and empathize with them, there would be neither the pull of a well-written novel nor the tickling of a horror film in the cinema. There is no reason to hug your own children after a fall from a bike, or to help your best friend with lovesickness. In short: Without empathy and empathy, our world would be a lot poorer and colder.

for further reading:

  • Buttelmann, D. et al .: Eighteen- month-old Infants Show False Belief Understanding in an Active Helping Paradigm. Cognition. 2009; 112: 337 - 342 (for abstract).