New research explains how origin of empathetic responses lie in cognitive simulation

New Delhi (India):A recent study suggests that the origin of a broad range of empathetic responses lies in the cognitive simulation. It shifts the theoretical focus from a top-down approach that begins with cooperation to one that begins with a single cognitive mechanism.

According to Fabrizio Mafessoni, lead researcher of the study, published in the journal of Scientific Reports, standard theoretical models of the origins of empathy tend to focus on scenarios in which coordination or cooperation are favoured.

The team of researchers explored the possibility that the cognitive processes underlying a broad range of empathetic responses — including emotional contagion, contagious yawning, and pathologies like echopraxia (compulsive repetition of others’ movements) and echolalia (compulsive repetition of others’ speech) — could evolve in the absence of kin selection or any other mechanism directly favouring cooperation or coordination.

The study findings suggest that animals and humans can engage in the act of simulating the minds of others.

“We cannot read other minds — they are like black boxes to us. But, as Lachmann explains, all agents share almost identical “black boxes” with members of their species, and “they are constantly running simulations of what other minds might be doing.” This ongoing as-actor simulation is not necessarily geared toward cooperation: it’s just something humans and animals do spontaneously,” the researchers explained.

An example of this process is represented by mirror neurons: it has been known for some time that the same neurons engaged in planning a hand movement are also used when observing the hand movement of others. Mafessoni and Lachmann wondered what the consequences would be if they were to extend that process of understanding to any social interaction.

When they modelled outcomes rooted in cognitive simulation, they found that actors engaged in as-actor simulation produce a variety of systems typically explained in terms of cooperation or kin-selection. They also found that an observer can occasionally coordinate with an actor even when this outcome is not advantageous. Their model suggests that empathetic systems do not evolve solely because agents are disposed to cooperation and kin-selection. They also evolve because animals simulate others to envision their actions.

“The very origin of empathy may lie in the need to understand other individuals,” said Mafessoni.

According to the researchers, their model is grounded in a single, cognitive mechanism that unifies a broad set of phenomena under one explanation. It, therefore, has theoretical import for a wide range of fields, including cognitive psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, complex systems, and evolutionary biology.