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The Science Behind Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

The Science Behind Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

September 19, 2016

Press Releases, Social Sciences & Humanities

The brain mimics the presumed emotional response of others whenever we try to understand their feelings, thereby leading to actually experiencing those feelings, according to a new study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) by researchers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Columbia University in New York.

“In the current study, we asked whether and how taking the perspective of other people can modify our own emotional responses to stimuli,” says Dr. Michael Gilead, a lecturer in the BGU Department of Psychology and a post-doc fellow under co-author Prof. Kevin Ochsner of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.

MichaelGilead

Dr. Michael Gilead

“For example, by thinking of how someone more brave than ourselves would respond to a situation, we might downregulate negative emotions, decrease aggression and calm frazzled nerves. Alternatively, by thinking of how someone more sensitive and anxious would respond to the situation, we might enhance vigilance and increase reactivity to threatening situations.”

Using data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers looked at neural activity in the amygdala — a brain region that plays a crucial role in generating negative affective experience. They saw that it was less active when simulating the emotions of the tough individual and more active when simulating the negative emotions of the sensitive individual. The researchers also looked at a recently discovered pattern of whole-brain neural activity that accurately gauges participants’ current affective experience. They observed that they indeed “felt worse vs. better” when taking the perspective of the more sensitive individuals.

“An important implication of the current findings is the suggestion that perspective-taking could have emotion regulatory benefits,” Dr. Gilead says. “The research suggests that the attempt to ‘walk in the shoes’ of an emotionally resilient individual may cause people to feel less unpleasant in the face of adversity. Accordingly, it may be possible to harness the type of emotional perspective-taking studied here as an emotion regulation strategy, aimed at helping individuals cope with emotional distress.”

The research was supported by National Institute on Aging Grant AG043463, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant HD069178 and a National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH090964.

About American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) plays a vital role in sustaining David Ben-Gurion’s vision: creating a world-class institution of education and research in the Israeli desert, nurturing the Negev community and sharing the University’s expertise locally and around the globe. As Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) looks ahead to turning 50 in 2020, AABGU imagines a future that goes beyond the walls of academia. It is a future where BGU invents a new world and inspires a vision for a stronger Israel and its next generation of leaders. Together with supporters, AABGU will help the University foster excellence in teaching, research and outreach to the communities of the Negev for the next 50 years and beyond. Visit vision.aabgu.org to learn more.

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