Israeli and American experts of emotion say taking the perspective of another person will change your brain to experience the feelings you are trying to simulate.
According to new research led by Prof. Kevin Ochsner from Columbia University and his post-doctoral fellow, Michael Gilead of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the attempt to understand the emotions of others alters the response of brain mechanisms involved in generating one’s own experience.
Their study was recently published in the journal PNAS.
In the study, the neural activity of participants was measured as they observed gory images and tried to predict how two other individuals would react to these images. One of the individuals whose emotions were to be predicted was emotionally tough and resilient, whereas the other was sensitive and neurotic. The participants were given monetary incentives to be as accurate as possible in trying to figure out the emotions of these two target individuals.
The researchers looked at neural activity in the amygdala—a brain region that plays a crucial role in generating negative affective experience—and saw that it was less active when simulating the emotions of the tough individual and more active when simulating the negative emotions of the sensitive individual.
The researchers said these findings suggest that our brains mimic the presumed affective response of others whenever we try to understand their feelings and thus actually experiencing those feelings.
The researchers said this ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” may bring with it both desirable and undesirable consequences. It could help someone feel the pain of a friend and it could help us cope in times of adversity if we think how someone braver may act.