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See Inside July / August 2011

Written All over His Face: Rare Condition Offers Clues to How We Read Emotions

People who feel what they see offer clues about how we read emotions and empathize

Understanding the thoughts and feelings of other individuals is essential for navigating the social world. But empathy is a complex process, based in part on fleeting facial expressions. Research suggests that we empathize by effectively putting ourselves in others’ shoes: for example, when we observe someone feeling sad, we simulate their experience by activating the same regions of the brain that are involved when we feel sad ourselves.

A study in the Journal of Neuroscience in February bolsters this idea using rare individuals with “mirror-touch synesthesia.” When watching another individual being touched, these people actually feel a touch on the same part of their own body. Neuroscientist Michael Banissy and his colleagues at University College London tested whether this heightened ability to simulate another person’s experience would cause eight mirror-touch synesthetes to excel at recognizing the emotions embedded in facial expressions. They did, correctly identifying 92 percent of the facial expressions tested compared with the 81 percent identified by control subjects. Their success probably stemmed from their simulation expertise rather than a general agility with faces because further experiments showed they were no better than controls at recognizing a person’s identity.

For the rest of us without mirror-touch syn­esthesia, the simulation process is the same but less pronounced, Banissy says. So the next time you find yourself sympathizing with someone who looks sad, thank the part of your brain that feels you frown.

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