Researchers have found that the way our brain handles how we move through space - including the ability to imagine ourselves stepping into someone else's shoes - may be related to how and why we experience empathy toward others.
The new study from Vanderbilt University has been published in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE.
Empathy, partly, involves the ability to simulate the internal states of others.
The authors hypothesized that humans' ability to manipulate, rotate and simulate mental representations of the physical world, including their own bodies, would contribute significantly to their 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," the expert said.
"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," she added.
To test their hypothesis that empathy and spatial processes are linked, the researchers designed an experiment in which subjects had to imagine themselves in the position of another person and make a judgment about where this other person's arm was pointing. The task required the subject to mentally transform their body position to that of the other person.
"We expected that the efficiency with which people could imagine these transformations would be associated with empathy. Because we were interested in linking spatial ability with empathy, we also included a very simple task of spatial attention called the line bisection task.
This test involves looking at a horizontal line and marking the midpoint. Although this task is very simple, it appears to be a powerful way to assess subtle biases in spatial attention," Thakkar said.
The researchers compared performance on the test with how empathetic the subjects reported themselves to be. They found that higher self-reported empathy was associated with paying more attention to the right side of space.
Boffins also found that in the female subjects only, the more empathetic people rated themselves, the longer they took to imagine themselves in the position of the person on the screen.