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Brain Scans Reveal Humans Are Hardwired for Empathy

Update Date: Aug 22, 2013 12:20 PM EDT

Humans are born good, according to a new study on empathy.

Scientists say that people are hardwired for compassion because brain scans reveal that humans closely associate those they care about as themselves.

"With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves," James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia said in a news release. "Our self comes to include the people we feel close to."

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Coan and his team found that people closely correlate people to whom they are closely attached to themselves.

The study involved 22 young adult participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves or to a friend or stranger.

The study revealed that regions of the brain responsible for threat response, the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus, became active under threat of shock to the self.  When the treat of shock was to a stranger, those regions showed little activity. However, when a friend was in danger of getting shocked, the brain activity of participants showed almost identical activity as when they themselves were about to get shocked.

"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."

The findings suggest that our self-identity is largely based on whom we know and empathize with. Researchers explain that this may be because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves.  Another explanation may be that people become more similar the more time they spend together.

"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."

Researchers said that this likely is the source of empathy, and part of the evolutionary process.

"A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources," he said. "Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal. It's a part of our survivability."

The study is published in the August issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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