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Dr. James Coan, University of Virginia – The Human Brain and Empathy

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. James Coan of the University of Virginia reveals evidence that our brains are wired for empathy.

James Coan is an associate professor of clinical psychology and Director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. His research examines the neural systems supporting social forms of emotion regulation. His work has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and been featured in the popular press.

About Dr. Coan

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Dr. James Coan – The Human Brain and Empathy

Scientists have long known that when the people we love most are near, we are happier and healthier. In our laboratory, we use brain imaging to measure the activity of the functioning brain during periods of mild stress, and during the momentary relief from that stress brought about by contact with another person—contact in the form of simple handholding. In our research, we’ve found that the brain doesn’t respond as strongly to the threat of electric shock if we are holding the hand of someone we love and trust.

More recently, we’ve been looking at what happens when the threat of shock is directed not only at the person inside the scanner, but also at the person outside the scanner—the handholder. Doing this, we’ve made a startling discovery: When we place your loved one under threat, your brain tends to respond as if the threat is directed at you! This isn’t the case at all when the threat is directed at a stranger. It’s as if one way to define familiarity is that those who are familiar and loved are encoded by our brain as literally part of us—a part of the self.

This explains our strong feelings of empathy for those we know best, and also the great relief we feel when they comfort us. Because, if our loved ones in some fundamental way are a part of us, then threats they face are threats we face, too. And—importantly—when we face threats of our own, then their resources are partly our resources—a realization that makes the our own challenges more manageable. In short, our closest relationships shape how the world looks to us by making us larger, more capable, and often, less threatened. And when we are less threatened, we can relax our defenses, which is always a good way to promote a healthy body and mind.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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