By Adrienne Berard
Fear-induced stress is at the root of mass hysteria. When we hear or read about a threat—that vaccines cause autism, that immigration begets terrorism, or that an explosion at the White House injured Obama—our bodies respond to it as if it were real before our conscious minds can evaluate its truth. And because we feel threatened, we’re more likely to believe that we are, and to share our fears with others.
Fear mongering works, in other words, not because we’re especially gullible or misinformed, but because stress is especially contagious.
The word empathy comes from the German einfühlung, meaning “feeling into.” Philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries used the term to describe our ability to take aesthetic pleasure in inanimate things. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that we began to speak of empathy as a social force. Writing in 1905, the German professor Theodor Lipps defined empathy as the “inner imitation” of the “experience of another human.” Just as it allows us to recognize human qualities in a sunset or painting, Lipps argued, empathy allows us to recognize each other as minded beings.
A century later, neuroscientists found biological evidence for this “inner imitation” in the form of mirror neurons, which fire both when an animal performs a task and when it sees another animal performing the same task. Similarly, brain-imaging studies in humans show that when we witness someone expressing an emotion—such as sorrow or disgust—the experience activates some of the same brain regions as when we feel that emotion ourselves. It’s this “mirror system,” researchers suspect, that enables us to understand the actions and sensations of others by recreating their mental state, or some version of it, in our own neural code.
“What this means is that in human interaction there is a bidirectional flow of information,” says Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The way we empathize with others, the way we catch the feelings of other people—and that includes stress—is that through mirroring, our body reacts to others.”
Picture: CERO (CERO official site) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons