Researchers now say that a region in the brain responsible for imitation may be behind the unique quality to sympathise for others and help the needy. Neuroscientists searching for roots of empathy have now found brain regions involved in learning by imitation.
They have also identified a network of brain regions that are involved in human imitation and specific brain areas that enable a person to distinguish the self from others.The research, done by a French and American team of social-cognitive neuroscientists, is part of a larger effort to find the neurological basis of social interaction, particularly empathy, a basic part of human nature that allows most, but no all people to care about others.
A 3-year old feels empathy and will pat another child in the shoulder or comfort his mom when she's crying. Scientists now believe that empathy has roots early in life. It may be linked to imitation, which we know babies do from a very early age. Researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to explore the neural mechanisms of imitation by measuring increases in blood flow in the brain.
In the study where researchers looked at imitation, they discovered a consistent pattern of increased brain activity involving the superior temporal gyrus, as well as differential activity in the two hemispheres within the inferior parietal cortex when imitation was involved. The left inferior parietal cortex showed increased activity when the subjects were imitating another person.
When the subjects were being imitated by the other person, however, the right inferior parietal cortex was more activated. The study shows that the inferior parietal cortex may play a key role in whether a person attributes an action to the self or to another person. By imitation we may feel what another person felt, which is the very definition of human empathy.
Imitation also is nature's way of conveying culture. It naturally occurs in a variety of settings, such as learning to play music and sports, or when a mother teaches her daughter how to tie her shoelaces. The monther ties a shoelace and the child follows, trying to imitate the action. We would expect the same kind of lateralised brain activity in learning to tie shoelaces as there was in our experimental task.
The team is headed by neuroscientist Jean Decety of France's Institut de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale and a visiting scientist at the University of Washington's Center for Mind, Brain & Learning, and development psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the center.