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Neuroscientists Confirm That Our Loved Ones Become Ourselves

Self-identity is entwined with the people you empathize with at a neural level.

A new study has confirmed that humankind's capacity for love and friendship sets us apart from all other species. Researchers at University of Virginia have found that humans are hardwired to empathize with those close to them at a neural level.

Interestingly, the ability to put yourselves in another person’s shoes depends drastically on whether the person is a stranger or someone you know. The study titled "Familiarity Promotes the Blurring of Self and Other in the Neural Representation of Threat" appears in the August issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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According to researchers, the human brain puts strangers in one bin and the people we know in another compartment. People in your social network literally become entwined with your sense of self at a neural level. "With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves," said James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences who used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain (fMRI) scans to find that people closely correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves.

Humans have evolved to have our self-identity become woven into a neural tapestry with our loved ones. James Coan said, "Our self comes to include the people we feel close to. This likely is because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And as people spend more time together, they become more similar.”

To test this hypothesis, Coan and his colleagues conducted a study with 22 young adult participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains during experiments to monitor brain activity while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves versus a shock to a friend or a stranger.

The researchers found that regions of the brain responsible for threat response – the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – became active under threat of shock to the self and to the threat to a friend. However, when the threat of shock was to a stranger, these brain areas showed minimal activity. When the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant was basically identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.

"The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar," Coan said. "The finding shows the brain's remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it's very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat."

"It's essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to," Coan said. "If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain."

Why do some people hurt the ones they love?

Have you ever had someone that you consider to be a close friend, ally or loved one turn on you and become cold or cruel? Usually the outbursts of anger and blind rage are short and episodic but they give a window into the underbelly of someone’s psyche. One's implusive response is to detach and unravel this person from your neural tapestry. This is a natural response of self-protection at a neural level but isn't always the best response.

A solution for breaking this pattern of behavior is to take a two-pronged approach of both bolstering self-love and taking the high road of remaining empathetic towards loved ones who are hateful by recognizing that mean-spirtedness is a manifestation of self-hate. For more on this please check out my Psychology Today blog "The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back." As a caveat, this is in no way implying that you should stay in a seriously harmful or abusive relationship. 

Patterns of behavior are often learned and repeated within families and passed on through generations. A promising aspect of this new study is that it offers clues on ways to break the cycle.

By not fighting back – but instead practicing loving-kindness – you can keep loved ones in your life and over time you will remain an integral part of one another's neural tapestry. This will fortify both people's sense of being worthy of love and belonging and make everyone feel safe and sound over the long run. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said famously, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Conclusion: Come in From the Cold

We need friends and family more than anything else. One of the most fascinating aspects of this study is the insight that someone being non-empathetic to a loved one is a reflection of lacking self-love. The realization that self-hate is neurobiologically at the root of a loved one being cruel makes it easy to feel sorry for them and empathize, instead of perpetuating a cycle of anger and disconnection.

One of my favorite Joni Mitchell lines is from a song called “Come in From the Cold.” In the song she says, “We get hurt and we just panic. And we strike out. Out of fear.” We all know the classic three-step cycle of: 1) Hurt 2) Panic 3) Lashing out because of fear.

When someone you love is mean to you, the knee-jerk reaction to the threat is to strike back in self-defense. Unfortunately, doing so perpetuates the vicious cycle of mistrust, anger, and loneliness. When the empathetic response is unplugged at a neural level on both sides disconnection occurs. This is tragic because human connection matters more than anything in our lives. Luckily, through loving-kindness meditation and compassion training you can break this cycle. Empathy can be learned and fortified with mindfulness training.

If you hate yourself on some level – and friends and loved ones are embedded into your sense of self at a neural level – it would make sense that your empathetic response would short-circuit and falter if you were filled with self-loathing.

But how do you build self-love? That’s a big question, I know. One way to start is to focus on the importance of fortifying your sense of being worthy of love and belonging. And to make lifestyle choices everyday that break the cycle of self-loathing by taking care of yourself through regular physical activity, eating foods that nourish your body, filling your mind with ideas that educate/enlighten, and practicing mindfulness and loving-kindness.

"A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources," he said. "Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal. It's a part of our survivability." Coan concludes, "People need friends, like one hand needs another to clap."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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