Are you with me? New model explains origins of empathy

Summary: A new model sheds light on the evolutionary origins of empathy and other associated phenomena. The model explains observed patterns of emotional cognition between social group members.

Source: Santa Fe Institute

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute and the Santa Fe Institute have developed a new model to explain the evolutionary origins of empathy and other related phenomena, such as emotional contagion and contagious yawning. The model suggests that the origin of a broad range of empathetic responses lies in cognitive simulation. It shifts the theoretical focus from a top-down approach that begins with cooperation to one that begins with a single cognitive mechanism.

According to Fabrizio Mafessoni, who is a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, standard theoretical models of the origins of empathy tend to focus on scenarios in which coordination or cooperation are favored.

Mafessoni, and his co-author Michael Lachmann, a theoretical biologist and Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, explored the possibility that the cognitive processes underlying a broad range of empathetic responses — including emotional contagion, contagious yawning, and pathologies like echopraxia (compulsive repetition of others’ movements) and echolalia (compulsive repetition of others’ speech) — could evolve in the absence of kin selection or any other mechanism directly favoring cooperation or coordination.

Mafessoni and Lachmann posited that animals, including humans, can engage in the act of simulating the minds of others. We cannot read other minds — they are like black boxes to us. But, as Lachmann explains, all agents share almost identical “black boxes” with members of their species, and “they are constantly running simulations of what other minds might be doing.” This ongoing as-actor simulation is not necessarily geared toward cooperation: it’s just something humans and animals do spontaneously.

An example of this process is represented by mirror neurons: it has been known for some time that the same neurons engaged in planning a hand movement are also used when observing the hand movement of others. Mafessoni and Lachmann wondered what the consequences would be if they were to extend that process of understanding to any social interaction.

This shows two heads next to one another and the word Empathy

An example of this process is represented by mirror neurons: it has been known for some time that the same neurons engaged in planning a hand movement are also used when observing the hand movement of others. Mafessoni and Lachmann wondered what the consequences would be if they were to extend that process of understanding to any social interaction. The image is in the public domain.

When they modeled outcomes rooted in cognitive simulation, they found that actors engaged in as-actor simulation produce a variety of systems typically explained in terms of cooperation or kin-selection. They also found that an observer can occasionally coordinate with an actor even when this outcome is not advantageous. Their model suggests that empathetic systems do not evolve solely because agents are disposed to cooperation and kin-selection. They also evolve because animals simulate others to envision their actions. According to Mafessoni, “the very origin of empathy may lie in the need to understand other individuals.”

For Lachmann, their findings “completely change how we think about humans and animals.” Their model is grounded in a single, cognitive mechanism that unifies a broad set of phenomena under one explanation. It, therefore, has theoretical import for a wide range of fields, including cognitive psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, complex systems, and evolutionary biology. Its power stems from both its unifying clarity and its theoretical interest in the limits of cooperation as an explanatory frame.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Santa Fe Institute
Media Contacts:
J. Marshall – Santa Fe Institute
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“The complexity of understanding others as the evolutionary origin of empathy and emotional contagion” Fabrizio Mafessoni & Michael Lachmann
Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 5794 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-41835-5

Abstract

The complexity of understanding others as the evolutionary origin of empathy and emotional contagion

Contagious yawning, emotional contagion and empathy are characterized by the activation of similar neurophysiological states or responses in an observed individual and an observer. For example, it is hard to keep one’s mouth closed when imagining someone yawning, or not feeling distressed while observing other individuals perceiving pain. The evolutionary origin of these widespread phenomena is unclear, since a direct benefit is not always apparent. We explore a game theoretical model for the evolution of mind-reading strategies, used to predict and respond to others’ behavior. In particular we explore the evolutionary scenarios favoring simulative strategies, which recruit overlapping neural circuits when performing as well as when observing a specific behavior. We show that these mechanisms are advantageous in complex environments, by allowing an observer to use information about its own behavior to interpret that of others. However, without inhibition of the recruited neural circuits, the observer would perform the corresponding downstream action, rather than produce the appropriate social response. We identify evolutionary trade-offs that could hinder this inhibition, leading to emotional contagion as a by-product of mind-reading. The interaction of this model with kinship is complex. We show that empathy likely evolved in a scenario where kin- and other indirect benefits co-opt strategies originally evolved for mind-reading, and that this model explains observed patterns of emotional contagion with kin or group members.

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