Despite what Ayn Rand devotees think (or assume, because “think” is a bit of a strong word for Objectivism), empathy plays and important role in our society—in the sense that without empathy, we probably wouldn’t have a society at all. However, empathy has an egocentric factor too, in that our capacity for empathy is limited by our own experience. For the first time, scientists have been able to measure this emotional egocentricity.
According to a report in the Journal of Neuroscience, his measurement is made possible because scientists have discovered the area of the brain responsible for helping us distinguish our emotional state from other people: the supramarginal gyrus. Researchers pinpointed this location using with functional magnetic resonance imaging, whilst conducting a series of empathy tests.
In one test, researchers had two participants view and image of maggots and touch slime, and then image of a puppy and touch fur. When asked to describe each other’s emotional state, the participants, of course, did quite well, given that they had the same experiences. However, when subjecting one participant to the negative experience and the other to the positive one, capacity for empathy fell drastically. The person with the positive experience underestimated how poorly the negative experience was, whilst the person with the negative experience also underestimated how happy the person with the positive experience felt.
To confirm the supramarginal gyrus’ role in empathy, researchers conducted an additional test and disrupted the neurons in this part of the brain while conducting the same above empathy experiment, which resulted in almost completely diminished empathy; the study’s participants had a very difficult time imagining any experience other than their own.
Interestingly, brain damage wasn’t the only way researchers found to limit empathy; they found that if they forced their subjects to make quick decisions, levels of empathy also plummeted.