How Does Our Ability to Feel Another Person’s Pain Work?

To empathize with another person is to literally feel their pain. You run a compelling simulation of what it would be like if you were in that situation. Our capacity for this is why stories – like movies and novels – are so absorbing and so pervasive across human culture. Whether it’s about total strangers or made-up characters, you experience their agony and their ecstasy. You fluidly become them, live their lives, and stand in their vantage points. When you see another person suffer, you can try to tell yourself that it’s their issue, not yours – but neurons deep in your brain can’t tell the difference.

This built-in factory to feel another person’s pain is part of what makes us so good at stepping out of our shoes and into their shoes, neurally speaking. But why do we have this facility in the first place? From an evolutionary standpoint of view, empathy is a useful skill: by gaining a better prediction about what they’ll do next. However, the accuracy of empathy is limited, and in many cases we simply project ourselves onto others.

The Brain: The Story of You
The Brain: The Story of You

David Eagleman

Background on David Eagleman

 

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