It has now been demonstrated that our own experience is important to exhibit feelings of sympathy or empathy for others. Psychologists and neuroscientists have been working hard to understand what happens in our brain as soon as we observe a person in action. The results of the observation show that the actions of the observer to a large extent are governed internally.
The research points out that we understand the actions of another person, apparently, on the basis of our own "action inventory". In other words, our own mind and body give us the foundation to understand what other people are doing, thinking, or feeling. Evidence for this comes out of an experiment involving two patients who apparently lost the ability to perceive their own body because of an extremely rare illness.
The two specific patients involved in the study have deficits in their ability to interpret the actions of other people, the psychological consequences of which are dramatic. In the dark, the patients lose complete control over their bodies, because they are no longer able to determine, for example, the position of their arms and legs relative to the body. Both patients report feelings of having lost their entire body, following which; they have trained themselves to carry out simple body movements.
The patients were confronted with short video films in which people were asked to lift boxes. Each box was a different weight. Both patients were given the task, in the first part, of guessing the weight of the box that the person in the film was lifting. The patients received no other clues; they had to guess the weight of the box solely from the motion sequence of the lifter. It turned out that the patients were able to complete the task as correctly and unerringly as the control subjects. Apparently they were able solve the problem using their knowledge that, for example, a slow body movement signifies a heavy load and a faster movement, which gives the impression the subject was unloading something, suggests a lower weight.
In the second part of the task, the patients also saw videos of people who were lifting boxes. However, this time, in some cases, the people in the film were deceived about the actual weight of the boxes. So the actor, for example, received the information before lifting the box that he was lifting 18 kilograms - when indeed the box weighed only three.
The patients then had to state whether the person in the video had the right or the wrong expectation regarding the weight of the box. In the second task, normal control subjects didn't have a problem correctly evaluating the situation. The two patients, on the other hand, had great difficulties. They were notably poorer than the control subjects in determining whether the person in the video had guessed correctly the weight of the box correctly, or had been deceived.
Finally, in a further experiment the scientists inverted the task. They asked the patients themselves to lift boxes and filmed them while they did so. It was found out that the patients, because of their lack of self-perception, were unable to adjust their movements to their expectations of the weight of the box or they were not able to judge other people's expectations based on their movement.
Models of movement, which are activated in the brain when we observe the actions of another person, hold information and knowledge about the way our own body functions. The possibilities and limitations of movement of our own body are the reference from which we process and interpret the actions of another person.
Feedback from our own bodies apparently plays a role in our intuitive knowledge of the intentions of other people. In this way, we can predict not only the consequences of other people's actions, but we are able to "put ourselves in the position" of the other person. Such a mechanism is the basis for sympathy and empathy, and thus decisive for the success and continuity of social relationships. After all, successful social communication is based, above all, on the ability to understand the actions of other people.