How our brains and bodies work together to create empathy

Photo by Fer Kazalz

Two new studies in neuroscience, revealed at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience earlier this month, show the ways our bodies respond to and mirror other people’s emotional states.

I’ve written a bit here about empathy and emotional mirroring, and how powerful our bodies can be at not just recognizing but assuming another’s emotional state.  The two studies in the above article both looked at how our brains and bodies work together to make our emotional perceptions more accurate and intense.

The second study was of greatest interest to me in Rubenfeld Synergy terms.  It turns out that there’s a part of our brain that’s responsible for empathic mirroring in the body: the somatosensory cortex.  This bit of our brains helps our bodies perceive touch, pain, temperature changes, and proprioceptive sensations – like knowing where our bodies are in space.  It has also been found that it responds when we see faces that are registering an emotion – such as fear, which was the expression used in this study.  When we see a face that appears fearful, our somatosensory cortex sends empathy-signals to the body: basically telling it to have physiological responses that mirror the fear in another human’s face.

“In order to understand other people’s emotions,” said Dr. Alejandra Sel, the lead on the study, “we need to experience the same observed emotions in our body. Specifically, observing an emotional face, as opposed to a neutral face, is associated with an increased activity in the somatosensory cortex as if we were expressing and experiencing our own emotions” [emphasis mine].

The study sought to discover whether this part of our brain responds independently of visual processing, and found that indeed, this part of us works on its own to help us understand others’ emotions.  Most interesting to me here, though, is the explanation of how the somatosensory cortex is involved not just in sending signals to the body, but receiving signals from it and helping us to synthesize that information. While the primary part of this cortex receives signals directly from the body, the secondary part “combines sensory information from the body with information related to body movement and other information, such as memories of previous, sensitive experiences.”

This, to me, says a lot about emotional and traumatic “triggers”: when we see someone else apparently experiencing fear or pain, not only do our bodies echo that fear and pain, but our bodymind assembles memories and sensations to fill out the experience. Depending on our individual histories, this process may open us to intense empathy, or may trigger a trauma response that causes us to shut down and dissociate.

From a Synergy perspective, I want to emphasize yet again how powerful and critical our bodies are in determining and shifting our emotional states.  Focusing on another’s pain can cause us to feel that pain just as acutely; by the same token, focusing on our own bodily sensations can both clarify our own emotions to ourselves, and give us the means to change our emotional state if we so desire.  One of the many benefits of RSM is that it teaches us how to become aware of our emotional states, fully experience them in our bodies, and have the tools to move beyond them.

The more we add to our understanding of how our brains – which are, after all, part of our bodies! – interact with the rest of our bodies, the more we can come into our self-sovereignty: not dominion over our emotions, but an aligned understanding of where our emotions, sensations, and thoughts are coming from, and how to bring them into agreement.  When we can do that, navigating the world becomes a lot easier.

Read the article on the studies here; make an appointment with me here.

Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

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