New research from Vanderbilt University indicates the way our brain handles how we move through spaceincluding being able to imagine literally stepping into someone else's shoesmay be related to how and why we experience empathy toward others.
The research was recently published in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE. The full article is available at: http://tinyurl.com/lw6qmv.
Empathy involves, in part, the ability to simulate the internal states of others. The authors hypothesized that our ability to manipulate, rotate and simulate mental representations of the physical world, including our own bodies, would contribute significantly to our ability to empathize.
"Our language is full of spatial metaphors, particularly when we attempt to explain or understand how other people think or feel. We often talk about putting ourselves in others' shoes, seeing something from someone else's point of view, or figuratively looking over someone's shoulder," Sohee Park, report co-author and professor of psychology, said. "Although future work is needed to elucidate the nature of the relationship between empathy, spatial abilities and their potentially overlapping neural underpinnings, this work provides initial evidence that empathy might be, in part, spatially represented."
"We use spatial manipulations of mental representations all the time as we move through the physical world. As a result, we have readily available cognitive resources to deploy in our attempts to understand what we see. This may extend to our understanding of others' mental states," Katharine N. Thakkar, a psychology graduate student at Vanderbilt and the report's lead author, said. "Separate lines of neuroimaging research have noted involvement of the same brain area, the parietal cortex, during tasks involving visuo-spatial processes and empathy."
To test their hypothesis that empathy and spatial processes
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