Empathy. Our Loved Ones Are An Extension Of Us

There are countless references in this book to maximizing our positive impact on ourselves and on the people that are most important to us in order to generate doses of happiness. Thankfully, my hypothesis happens to be supported by research. There is research indicating that the people that matter most to us are, in one sense, extensions of ourselves. Hurting them means hurting ourselves. Making them happy means making ourselves happy. 

Researchers at University of Virginia have found that humans are hardwired to empathize with those close to them at a neural level. The study, titled “Familiarity Promotes the Blurring of Self and Other in the Neural Representation of Threat” seems to indicate that the extent to which you can truly put yourself in another person’s shoes depends on whether that person is a stranger or somebody that you know.

The researchers concluded that the human brain compartmentalizes people that we know differently from people that we do know. The people that you do know seem to become part of a internal social network in the part of your brain that includes your sense of self. These people are effectively treated as if they are an extension of you. James Coan (4.1), a psychology professor in University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences said that 

“With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves,” 

The people that we love essentially form a part of our own self-identity. Coan says that “Our self comes to include the people we feel close to. This likely is because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And as people spend more time together, they become more similar.”

In order to test this hypothesis, Coan and his colleagues conducted a study with 22 young adult participants where they were put into a situation where there was a threat of receiving a mild electrical shock to themselves or to a friend or to a stranger. The brains of the participants were scanned during the process. The scans showed that the areas of the brain that became active under the threat of shock to the self was the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus. The same area became active when the participant perceived a threat to the friend, however, there was minimal activity in this area when the participants perceived a threat to a stranger.

“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” Coan said. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally, we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.” 

“It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” Coan said. “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.”

One of the more interesting conclusions that can be drawn from this research is that behavior by a person that does not feel empathy toward a loved one may in fact be behavior that reflects a lacking of self love. If we are in a situation where somebody close to us acts in a way that is destructive to our relationship we have to consider the possibility that their behavior is not necessarily directed at us but is in fact self-destructive behavior. If this person is important to us, we should consider avoiding responses that cause an escalation in the self-destructive behavior.

It also helps to look at the situation from the opposite perspective. Instead of just thinking about how our friends and loved ones treat us, take a moment to think about how you treat your friends and loved ones. Even if there are no signs of destructive behavior this exercise can still be very illuminating. For example, when you see friends and loved ones, are you genuinely happy to see them or you just going through the motions of seeing them? Do you genuinely want them to succeed or fail? Do you think of them as teammates or opponents? There answers to these questions may help you to determine how you really feel toward your friends and loved ones and, therefore, determine how you feel toward yourself. 

If you hate yourself and your friends and loved ones are hardwired into your sense of self then your self-hate will somehow end up being projected upon your friends and loved ones. Although this may be horrifying information to some of you the good news is that it can help you to become aware of the situation and attempt to address it. It can be very difficult to look at ourselves in order to figure out what is going on with ourselves. This research tells us that we can observe our behavior toward our friends and loved ones and use that to figure out what is going on with ourselves.

The common expression, treat other people in the way that you would like to be treated, appears to be more true than we thought when it comes to friends and loved ones. 

Next article in this series: “What Does Your Heart Tell You?”

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