Do you feel what I feel? Only if we’re two of a kind.

First of all, let’s all hope that Sci can stay awake long enough to get this post out, it’s been a very long few weeks and Sci is very, very tired. She has, admittedly, been very, very tired for a very, very long time. But she is also very, very devoted to YOU. Yes, YOU. And the blog. And TEH SCIENZE!!!
(Sci was looking for a god or goddess of science to worship here, but couldn’t find anything. She used this Minoan Snake Goddess from Crete instead. Can you tell Sci’s REALLY tired?)
Anyway, in my devotion to Science, and particularly neuroscience, one of the things that has always particularly interested Sci is the notion of empathy. Empathy and altruism. Altruism obviously has some pretty big societal advantages, useful for a social species such as the human, and empathy, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling, is a pretty important part of that.
But how do you know what someone else is experiencing? You see it. This effect has been known especially in people with something called synesthesia, where one type of sensation is perceived as another type of sensation. For example, some synethetes can “taste” or “see” sound. In this case, it’s been found that some synesthetes can “feel” touch which they are seeing occur on other people. This means that if they see YOU get touched on the hand, they’ll feel their hand get touched as well. It occurs to Sci that, while this could be a very cool thing to have sometimes (like sex!), it would make watching slasher fics a REALLY horrible experience. This also makes her wonder if some synesthetes experience atonal music like bad tasting medicine or something.
Anyway, the scientists in this study used a touch experience to determine whether this synesthete experience, of seeing someone being touched, could make a normal person “feel” something. This could be a big deal in explaining why we empathize with other people’s experiences. Not only that, the authors wanted to look at whether the identification of yourself and of another person had an effect on the feelings you felt as that person was being touched. Ideas of what we look like or who we identify with can change how we “map” ourselves in our brain, and possibly change how we experience what others are feeling. Having more or less intense feelings for someone who looks or acts more or less like you could help explain how we establish things like “in group” and “out group” concepts, which are essential in forming the kind of society we have now. Andrea Serino, Giulia Giovagnoli, Elisabetta Làdavas “I Feel what You Feel if You Are Similar to Me” PLoS ONE, 2009.

To parse out physical similarity vs ideological similarity, the researchers performed two different tests. The first test had participants of two different backgrounds, Caucasian and Maghrebian. Maghrebian refers to a group of people from Northern Africa, which made up a large sub-population in the study, as the study was performed in Spain. People of both background viewed faces of both backgrounds.
In the first study, the faces from people of both backgrounds (all faces were controlled for attractiveness, by the way, they know that’s a factor, and so all faces were considered similarly attractive), were put on a screen. Then a hand (an outside hand) would come up, on either side or both sides at the same time, and touch the picture’s face. At the same time, a stimulus would touch the participant’s face on one side or the other, but at a level so low that it couldn’t be detected in baseline conditions. The question was whether or not the participant felt the touch MORE due to seeing someone else get touched, and whether this effect was enhanced in the presence of physical similarity.
It turns out that you will feel a sub-threshold stimulus on your own face if you are seeing someone else’s face get touched. You feel if even more if you are both getting the stimulation on that same side. AND, you feel it most if you are physically similar to the picture of the person being touched. People “identified” more with people they were similar to, with Caucasians feeling more when Caucasian faces were touched, and Maghrebain participants feeling more when Maghrebian faces were touched. Both groups judged the Caucasian and Maghrebain faces to be equally attractive regardless of physical similarity.
So we now know that people will identify more with a touch on people who look more like them. That finding isn’t too surprising. But does the identification run more than skin deep? Can you identify with someone on a physical level merely because you feel an ideological identification with them? To test this, the researchers took participants of intensely liberal and conservative leanings, and performed the test, this time using pictures of liberal and conservative political figures.
(Figure 1 from the paper showing the experimental design, and the faces of the political leaders)
In this case, they used political leaders that were objectively judged prior to testing as being equally attractive in appearance, though both were Caucasian and there was no physical similarity test in this experiment. They found that people of a strong political leaning had extra sensitivity to touch when political leaders of their OWN party were being touched compared to that of the opposite party. Not only that, they judged their own political leader to be far more attractive than that of the opposite party of leader.
While the attractiveness judgements are another matter for another paper, the results here show that you can identify with someone based on both physical and ideological similarity, and that identifying with someone will actually change how sensitive you are to something like touch! This could be a big deal for scientists working to understand how we identify with and create in-groups and out-groups, and in what ways these groups provide personal advantage and disadvantage. In the meantime, if you want to save yourself from some rough nightmares, you might have more luck watching slasher fics with people in them who are as least like you as possible. This makes me think my next slasher fic is going to have to be something like “The Horror in Whoville”.
(Yikes. Nope. Still scary.)
Serino, A., Giovagnoli, G., & Làdavas, E. (2009). I Feel what You Feel if You Are Similar to Me PLoS ONE, 4 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004930

13 Responses

  1. buahahahahhahahaaaa….
    so i can feel what people feel if i were them ^^

  2. Yes… but what if I’m a conservative and look like Barney Frank… and I’m female?

  3. Are people measurably more sensitive to touch when they run this experiment with people you’d expect them to be empathetic toward (say a close friend or family member)?

  4. Sci – you’re seriously freaking me out. I haven’t read the whole post yet, but I am an altruism research junkie. I love it! I’ve got like a dozen sociobiology books on it! I had not considered this from a synethete perspective…though I recently discovered that I am a synesthete! Sweet! Except I don’t get to do anything cool like taste music…I have number-form synesthesia which is not as cool 😦
    Anyway, this connection is pretty cool!

  5. Isn’t it rather different from real life? When we are considering synesthesia or even empathy, no subliminal stimulation of the synesthete or the empathizing person is involved. I feel this experiment may be better interpreted as the conditions which encourage unconscious detection of subliminal stimuli…?

  6. I wonder if there’s some way to do this experiment on animals. I’d like to know how great apes, gibbons, and Old World monkeys do. My guess is that they’d duplicate the mirror test, but it would be nice to know.
    Something else I’d like to see is fMRI studies of the process taking place, and compared to those from Self-face recognition (referenced in end-note 31 of Serino et al).

  7. Nice, Sci–I always love reading your posts on studies, you pick such interesting ones!
    …although I have to say, I laughed for a good full minute looking at the politicians picture.

  8. Ambivalent Academic: OMG! What exactly is number/form synesthesia? I’ve heard of it before but never gotten a good explanation. MUST KNOW! It sounds rather awesome.
    Chemgirl: You make Sci blush. And yeah, they do look really funny!
    Sadet: A good point. I think a good way to test that would be to have people in a room, watching a video of someone they identify with, in a situation wherein they do something like, say grimace in pain after being poked or something. I think they’ve done something like this with actors, but I don’t think that synesthesia was the main point of the study.
    becca: I don’t know, but I would imagine so. You’d think that experiment would have been done already. Must look…

  9. Super cool. I think I read some popular article(s) on V.S.Ramachandran’s work with synesthesia. I’m also interested in altruism and how compassion arises in the brain, and in the possibility of meditative practices stimulating it the way physical exercise can stimulate the body.

  10. Tangential anecdote:
    I saw a special on TV once about synesthetes, and there was one guy who could taste words. And he said, unfortunately, that he had to break up with a girl once because her name just tasted too bad. Tracy, was the name…and he just couldn’t take how bad the name tasted and he had to dump her.
    I love your posts Sci. and AA, yes, do share – what exactly is number/form synesthesia??

  11. Hehehehe, Berlusconi and Prodi, both charming Italians…
    Anyhow, it seems like a very intuitive result, but it would be interesting to see an exploration of why it is exactly we do empathize with similar individuals; is it because we feel more connected to them and that reflects on how we might perceive our own wellbeing, i.e. is a threat (dis-embodied hands touching an image) perceived as more important to us in an evolutionary/survival type way?

  12. Sci, Ambivalent Academic probably means she (?) sees numbers in consistent colours. Number and letter to colour association are the most common forms of synesthesia.
    Please pardon my saying so, but it seems to me like you have a few misunderstandings about synesthesia as a concept. As a synesthete (and an aspie, and unable to resist), it gets a little frustrating seeing common misconceptions repeated.
    Synesthesia is a neurological disorder of unknown etiology that results in two or more sensory perceptions overlapping. The example that you gave in your post of a synesthete seeing someone being touched and feeling their own skin being touched is not generally the way it works (on one of the better known and well kept resource websites for synesthesia, relating visual imput to touch is at the very bottom of the list of sensory interactions: ); to be perfectly honest, synesthesia probably has very little to do with altruism. It is anectdotally quite common in the autism community, though, if you wanted to look at that overlap.
    My synesthesia manifests itself as smell and taste perception as colour, mostly taste as colour (scents only if they’re overwhelming). I don’t eat anything that tastes brown or orange. My girlfriend has much more interesting synesthesia, however, in that she experiences people’s personalities as musical chords.

  13. Patience: thanks very much for your explanation. I will be the first to tell you that I don’t know anything about synesthesia. The example I gave was actually the one they used in the paper, which is apparently a very rare form. But thanks very much for your explanation! I’ll be looking up more synesthesia stuff.

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