Dissecting the empathic brain: An interview with Christian Keysers

Why do we shudder when we watch a tarantula crawling across James Bond’s chest in a 007 movie? And what can looking into a monkey’s brain tell us about our capacity to share in the emotional experiences of other people? Answers to these questions appear in The Empathic Brain: How the Discovery of Mirror Neurons Changes our Understanding of Human Nature, the fascinating and entertaining new book by Christian Keysers, Professor for the Social Brain at the University Groningen in the Netherlands. Keysers, one of the world’s most distinguished and innovative neuroscientists, was part of the famous team at the University of Parma, Italy, that discovered auditory mirror neurons in the macaque monkey, which has revolutionised thinking about how empathy works in human beings. In this exclusive interview for Outrospection, I talk to him about his book, and how far neuroscience has really taken us in our understanding of empathy.

Roman Krznaric: What exactly have you discovered about the ’empathic brain’, and the importance of mirror neurons?

Christian Keysers: The question that fascinates me is how we understand others. I often just look my wife in the face, and instantly know how she feels (and thus, whether I’m in trouble or not…). Hollywood movies are a good example: your heart beats faster as you watch a tarantula crawl on James Bond’s chest in the movie Dr No, your hands sweat and your skin tingles under the spider’s legs. Effortlessly, you feel what Bond feels.

We all know this, and take it for granted. What makes this capacity so mysterious for me as a scientist, is that Bond’s feelings are triggered by neural activity in his brain. I cannot see his brain, so how can I see so clearly what he feels?

Our work together with that of a handful of colleagues, has started to give us answers. Our brain automatically activates regions normally involved in our own actions, sensations and emotions, when we see what happens to other people. Mirror neurons in an individual’s brain fire both when the individual grasps a peanut and when she sees another do the same. This is what we have found in our discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys and using neuroimaging in humans: our brain mirrors the state of other people. Understanding what they feel then becomes understanding what you now feel in their stead. Neuroscience has discovered empathy.

What my book is about, is letting the reader share the thrill of these discoveries and understand how this colours our perception of others: When can we trust our empathy, when can we not? Why do some people have troubles understanding others?

Roman Krznaric: Psychologists often make a distinction between ‘affective empathy’, which is about mirroring or sharing emotions, and ‘cognitive empathy’, which is about perspective-taking and looking at the world through someone else’s eyes. It strikes me that much of the neuroscience research on empathy is focusing on the former while neglecting the latter. Do you agree with that? And what, if anything, has neuroscience discovered about our cognitive ability to step into someone else’s shoes and understand not just their emotions, but their values, experiences and other aspects of their worldview?

Christian Keysers: I think that the most exciting progress in my field is the discovery that the brain does not just mirror the emotions of others. We share the actions, sensations and emotions of the people around us. So if you see me grasp a cool glass of water, you share my intention to grasp the glass, what it feels like to grasp the glass, the cool sensation in my fingers and my satisfaction as I feel my thirst being quenched. This is richer than what the term ‘affective empathy’ suggests, and incorporates goals and sensations that traditional psychology had thought to be the result of much more cognitive processes.

If you try to think what movie would please a girl you want to seduce, mirror systems however incline you to bring her to a good action movie (because that would make you happy in her stead). But think again: women don’t always like action movies. What you should do is think about what women might like instead, and distrust your empathy. This is what I would call mentalizing, and what some psychologists call ‘cognitive empathy’. Some very good people have worked on understanding how the brain mentalizes. They have found certain brain regions that are consistently active while mentalizing (medial prefrontal cortex and temporo-parietal junction). What we still lack, and there I agree with you, is an understanding of what happens in these mentalizing regions.

The reason I focus on mirroring, is because seeing activity in somatosensory regions while viewing others being touched is primarily information about ‘where’ the process occurs. But it also shows that you transform what others feel into representations of what you would feel in their stead; ‘where’ becomes ‘how’ you understand others. When you study mentalizing, and find regions that are not involved in your own experiences, it is hard to know what actually happens within these regions. ‘Where’ remains where.

Roman Krznaric: When early astronomers in the seventeenth century started looking at the sky with their new telescopes, they were able to see so many more stars and moons and planets than were visible with the naked eye, but they did not yet have a great understanding of how the solar system, or the universe more broadly, really functioned. It would be decades, or even longer, before that understanding significantly developed. They were much better at description than explanation. It seems to me that the nueroscience of empathy may be at a similar stage of development: MRI scanners can detect and describe an enormous amount that is going on in our brains, but our understanding of how neurons really shape our everyday emotions and behaviour is at quite a rudimentary level. Do you think this is a fair analogy? Or is the neuroscience of empathy more advanced than I suspect?

Christian Keysers: If you don’t mind, let me start with suggesting you are wrong. Hundreds of studies now show hundreds of blobs in the brain while people look at the actions, sensations and emotions of others. This is similar to seeing many planets and stars. But it all falls into place in a unifying theory of social cognition I describe in the book: we mirror the actions, sensations and emotions of others. This simple sentence predicts and describes most of these blobs. Unlike early astronomers, we thus do have a theory that condenses out of all these observations.

But I also agree with you to some extent: we still have much exciting work to do. In the book, I describe how neurons capable of mirroring could emerge simply by watching our own actions. I discuss evidence for how our perception is changed if we interfere with mirror activity. However, we still need to do a lot of detailed neurophysiology to derive a comprehensive wiring diagram of how a brain becomes empathic. Because this is so difficult in humans, we need animal models of empathy. Last week we just published a paper that shows that rats are also sensitive to what happens to other rats. This is an important step in that direction.

Roman Krznaric: What are the ethical implications of our new understanding of the empathic brain? Are there any clear messages about how we should go about treating other people?

Christian Keysers: Neuroscience is descriptive, not normative in a moral context. Just because we show that the brain can be empathic does not tell us that empathy is good or bad. It does not even tell us that we should be empathic. Where neuroscience is interesting, is by showing us the limits of our natural empathy, and helping us devise ethics that are compatible with how our brain works. For instance, our work shows that we feel what goes on in others by projecting what we would feel in their stead. In this context, ethics that suggest ‘treat others as they would like to be treated’ are harder to follow than ethics that suggest ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’.

Roman Krznaric: Do you think that the recent empathy research is really telling us a new story about human nature? Are we ‘homo empathicus’ as much as we are self-interested, individualistic creatures?

Christian Keysers: Let me be bold and say yes – it does tell us a new story. As westerners in particular, we were brought up to centre our thinking on individuals – individual rights, individual achievements. Journalism is a great example of that. Each time I write a press release with many names of collaborators that made a discovery possible, the article still reads as if I had done the work alone. The media likes showing single individuals that change our understanding of the world. It’s all about the individual.

But if you call the state of your brain your identity (and I would), what our research shows, is that much of it is actually what happens in the mind of other people. My personality is the result of my social environment. Even ‘my’ ideas are the result of all the ideas and skills of my forefathers, internalized in my brain through mirror-like phenomena. Also, whenever I take a decision to do something, mirror systems will let me share the pain and joy I make others feel. The fate of others colours my own feelings and thus my decisions. I is actually we. Neuroscience has put ‘we’ back into the brain. That is not a guarantee (and my wife will agree) that some of my actions are not egoistic and selfish, but it shows that egoism and selfishness are not the only forces that direct our brain. We are social animals to a degree most didn’t suspect only a decade ago.

Buy a copy of Christian Keyser’s The Empathic Brain here.

6 thoughts on “Dissecting the empathic brain: An interview with Christian Keysers

  1. I do not mean to play devil’s advocate, but any article making such uncritical praise of mirror neuron theory should be balanced with a mention of Greg Hickock’s paper.

  2. May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  3. Im curious, why do certain individuals have empathy to the dagree its not normal. Feel ones, pain, anger, jealousy, love and so on. When they meet somebody the instantly know if that person is ok or no good to be around. Go as far as , you feel the hurt and wounds that is so intense it flashes an image of what caused this and 85% your right.
    With this there senses are stronger, hearing , smelling, etc.. lm curious to know what youve researched on this and what youve found.

  4. Hi Karen
    Interesting question. I discuss this in my book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. For another angle, try Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy.
    Best wishes

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