When our friends go through a tough time, like a break-up or a job loss, we’re really good at putting ourselves in their shoes. In fact, it’s almost like we experience their pain firsthand.
That’s according to a new study on empathy. University of Virginia researchers used MRI scans to analyze the brains of volunteers. When researchers gave a stranger a mild electric shock, there was no reaction in the “threat response” part of the volunteer’s brain.
But when a friend was shocked, the volunteer’s brain activity became almost identical to how they’d react if they were being shocked themselves. We literally feel like we’re under attack when a friend is under attack.
Lead researcher Dr. James Coan says we’re so bonded to the people close to us that they become a part of us, a part of our psyche. That’s because humans need to have friends and family to survive. And the more time we spend with someone, the more similar we become, and the better we understand each other. And that closeness makes us significantly more empathetic.