The empathic brain
Most of us can effortlessly feel what goes on in other people. When we watch the scene in Dr. No where a tarantula walks on James Bond’s chest, we need no conscious deliberation to understand his intentions to kill the spider or to guess what the tingling of the spider’s legs feel like on his chest. Instead, we seem to empathically feel what he goes through. Our hands start sweating and our heart beats faster – as if we were in his stead. Why are we so empathic?In this talk, I will review research that shows that our motor system, normally involved in programing our own actions, becomes automatically activated when we see the actions of others. I will show how our somatosensory system, that normally responds when we are touched, becomes activated when we see the skin of other people be touched. Finally, I will show how regions of the brain involved in experiencing emotions such as disgust, pain and pleasure become activated when we see or read about others experience similar emotions.Together, this data shows why we do not need our intellect to understand other people. Our brain transforms what others do and feel into our own actions and feelings. We then feel what they feel, and intuitively adapt to their actions and emotions. Biology has equipped us with an empathic brain that endows us with an intuitive understanding of others and an intuitive sense of ethics.
Christian Keysers (1973) leads the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam and is Professor for the Social Brain at the University Medical Center Groningen. Together with his laboratory, he investigates how the brain allows us to understand other individuals. He is French and German, studied Psychology and Biology in Germany and the USA and received his PhD from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland). Thereafter he worked in Parma, Italy, in the group that discovered Mirror Neurons, and lives in the Netherlands since 2004. He wrote a book, ‘The Empathic Brain’, in which he shows how his discoveries change the way we think about social interactions and human nature. Further Reading: The Empathic Brain by Christian Keysers, available from amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/9081829203/)
Session Chair: Prof. Orla Hardiman, Consultant Neurologist, Beaumont Hospital Dublin
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