Ever have a heartache? A throbbing pride that feels like it’s going to burst your chest? New research on social emotions like empathy and appreciation has shown that the way people describe potent feelings is more than metaphor: It’s scientifically accurate.
“People experiencing admiration or compassion in the brain will ‘recruit’ nearby neurons to help them feel the emotion physically,” reports Search (July-Aug. 2009). “Intriguingly, the neural systems that get recruited often link to the body’s guts and viscera.” When terrible news punches you in the stomach, your brain helps you quite literally suffer the blow.
The findings come courtesy of a team of researchers led by University of Southern California psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who took the somewhat unusual step of researching positive social emotions after working as a junior high school teacher made her curious about how inspiration functions. There’s a disproportionate amount of research into fear and aggression, Search explains, because for brain scientists those emotions are “low-hanging fruit.” Easy to induce, simple to spot on an MRI.
Social emotions like compassion, however, are a uniquely human trait; no other creatures share them. Unlocking them requires some strategy—Immordino-Yang found it difficult to consistently “move” subjects—but the results lend insight into the very core of being human.