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Empathy: from spiders to psychopathy

Professor Christian Keysers first saw the film Dr. No as a teenager. Watching the scene where James Bond wakes up to discover a large, hairy, poisonous spider crawling up his arm, he thought he could almost feel the spider on his own skin.

More than a decade later, he began to research empathy – the ability to recognise another’s feelings. So he watched Dr. No again to see if he got the same feeling, and to try to figure out: Why did he seem to feel the same terror as Bond, when there was no deadly spider near him?

Prof. Keysers, 39, head of the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, is currently on a quest to understand the mechanisms at work in empathy. Empathy is a fundamental part of being human, and a better understanding could provide the basis for grappling with mental disorders where people lack it – such as autism – for which there is so far few medicines available for treatment.

The past decade has seen some progress in mapping out regions of the brain that seem to be involved with empathy, he says. But scientists still do not understand the precise mechanisms at work: how neurones – electrically stimulated cells – in the brain interact when we are empathising. Prof. Keysers is planning to go further with a grant he received from the European Research Council (ERC) – the 3 000th such grant awarded.

‘Empathy is the glue that makes social life possible’

Professor Christian Keysers, Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience.

‘We still don’t understand how these individual regions of the brain work together to make the process possible,’ he says – ‘how they exchange information with each other to make this possible.’

Someone else’s shoes

Empathy is an essential part of human social life. It is closely linked to compassion and to ‘putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes’ – both of which make us less likely to harm others, and more likely to do things that benefit them. Such instincts are the basis of the collaboration at the heart of social and economic life: if we could not empathise, human society as we know it could never have developed.

Indeed, empathy is the cornerstone of the major religions’ ethical doctrines, which developed as people began to abandon a nomadic lifestyle and start settling on farms – thus requiring that they live and work together. For Christians, the so-called Golden Rule goes: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Christian Keysers heads the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam. © Valeria GazzolaProf. Christian Keysers heads the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam. © Valeria Gazzola

‘The Golden Rule is the fundament of ethics in almost all major religions,’ says Prof. Keysers. ‘Empathy is at the core of human nature – the glue that makes social life possible.’

The trouble is, the workings of empathy have proved hard to figure out. Over the past 10 years, scientists have come to understand the basics, says Prof. Keysers. In particular, a part of the brain that sparks up when you do something or feel an emotion yourself will come online again when you see the actions and emotions of others.

The next stage is to figure out mechanisms. Prof. Keysers heads a multi-national team of 12 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands ranging from biologists to an astrophysicist. To gather experimental data on humans, the team uses a so-called electroencephalogram (EEG), in which electrode sensors are attached to the head of human subjects, while they look at images designed to stimulate feelings of empathy. The sensors measure where in the brain electrical activity is taking place, in order to trace the pathways used. The team also uses a sophisticated type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the scans used by doctors to visualise the body’s internal structures.

To get more direct readings of brain activity, they use rats and monkeys – who also feel empathy. With rats, they can be more intrusive, placing sensors in the brain to track what neurones are doing, and manipulating brain activity. Interestingly, Prof. Keysers found that rats feel more empathy for their cage mates than for other rats. While humans tend to be more empathetic than rats, people still sometimes lack empathy for others outside their group, whether this is based on race, politics or their favourite football team.

Any findings on the mechanisms at work in animal brains would only be relevant to humans if the same brain regions are at work, but the first signs here are positive, says Prof. Keysers. ‘By putting all of that together for the first time we can get a real biology of how the brain is empathic,’ he says.

Robot empathy

Better understanding of empathy could have a variety of uses. As populations age, there are not enough human nurses to go round. Teaching robots to recognise human emotions could smooth their interaction with humans.

Perhaps more significantly, figuring out the biological pathways of empathy might help develop treatments of mental disorders related to its absence. Autistic people appear not to be able to recognise what others are feeling, disrupting their social interactions. Psychopaths seem also to lack such understanding, which allows them to harm others without feeling bad about it. Drugs can help treat the delusions suffered by schizophrenics – but not their poor emotional responsiveness.

‘For schizophrenia, you can treat the positive symptoms, such as delusions,’ says Prof. Keysers. ‘But none of the big pharma companies have a single compound that can target the social deficit.’

Prof. Keysers’ current work is several steps away from the world of pharma research – and that is the way he likes it. His EUR 1.8 million ERC grant is letting his research group ‘do five years of research on a risky subject’ – that is, one that is so ambitious it is hard to predict in advance what it will yield. He says it also helps that the grant is awarded to a project rather than just an individual scientist, as is the case with many other grants.

Even the application process pushed him further than he would have otherwise. ‘You know that you are competing against the most innovative minds in Europe. It makes you pause,’ he says. ‘You really take the time to stop and think about what would be an original next step. That’s something you don’t get to do every day in a busy lab schedule.’

When you witness someone else sniff a glass and look disgusted, you activate certain brain regions (blue) that overlap (white) with those (red) that are active when you smell something bad yourself. When you see others be touched on their leg, you activate regions (blue) that overlap (white) with those (red) that are active when you are touched on your own leg. Finally, seeing someone else perform a hand action, you activate (blue) regions that overlap (white) with those (red) that are responsible for moving your own hand. Jointly, this shows, that you understand the emotions (top), sensations (middle) and actions (bottom) of others, not through thinking, but by empathically making your brain slip in a state that resembles that of the actor in the movie, involving the same emotional, somatosensory and motor cortices responsible for your own emotions, sensations and actions. © Keysers

When you witness someone else sniff a glass and look disgusted, you activate certain brain regions (blue) that overlap (white) with those (red) that are active when you smell something bad yourself. When you see others be touched on their leg, you activate regions (blue) that overlap (white) with those (red) that are active when you are touched on your own leg. Finally, seeing someone else perform a hand action, you activate (blue) regions that overlap (white) with those (red) that are responsible for moving your own hand. Jointly, this shows, that you understand the emotions (top), sensations (middle) and actions (bottom) of others, not through thinking, but by empathically making your brain slip in a state that resembles that of the actor in the movie, involving the same emotional, somatosensory and motor cortices responsible for your own emotions, sensations and actions. © Christian Keysers

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