As I mentioned in emotions in art and the brain "emotions and feelings are mediated by distinct neural systems. Whereas emotions are automatic responses to sensory stimuli, feelings are 'private, sbjective experiences' that emerge from the cognitive processing of an emotion eliciting state."
Providing hard evidence of this view is an excellent piece of research reported in this week's Science by University College London neuroscientists, Tania Singer and Ray Dolan (who showed videos of this research at the neuroesthetics conference).
"Human survival depends on the ability to function effectively within a social context. Central to successful social interaction is the ability to understand others intentions and beliefs. This capacity to represent mental states is referred to as "theory of mind" or the ability to "mentalize". Empathy, by contrast, broadly refers to being able to understand what others feel, be it an emotion or a sensory state. Accordingly, empathic experience enables us to understand what it feels like when someone else experiences sadness or happiness, and also pain, touch, or tickling."
An Overview of the Empathy Experiment: (A real stinger)
"To hunt for this form of empathy, the researchers recruited 16 heterosexual couples who were romantically involved and assumed to be attuned to each others feelings. Each man and woman had electrodes attached to their right hand capable of delivering a mild, ticklish shock or a stinging, short jolt of pain.
Each woman then had her brain scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging, while being able to view only the right hand of her beau sitting beside her. Unable to see her loved one's face, her only clue to his state was conveyed symbolically by a set of lights indicating whether he was receiving a mild shock or a stinging jolt.
When the women were subjected to a strong shock, a whole series of brain regions lit up including those on the brain's left side that physically mapped the pain to their hand. The regions of the brain - the anterior insula (AI) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) - involved in the emotional response to pain and other situations, also lit up.
But when their partners were zapped, regions physically mapping the pain were quiet while the AI and ACC and a few other regions lit up in the women's brains. And the signals from those two areas were stronger in women who reported a greater degree of empathy, suggesting these regions mediate empathy.
Singer suspects that our brain's ability to intuit the emotional response of others could have been strongly selected during evolution. "If I do something, it tells me will it make you smash me, will you kill me or will you like it? Being able to predict how others feel might have been necessary for human survival," she says.
I couldn't agree more, empathy is critical to human survival. This research is a great addition to the growing scientific literature on empathy and provides further evidence that animal models of human behavior are insufficient to undertand human behavior and to develop effective neuroceuticals.