A brain study by Beckes and colleagues (2013) shows how familiarity increases empathy, making the boundary between self and other less clear.
The researchers used a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technique to examine the participants’ brain activities in the areas that are thought to be involved in responses to threat.
More specifically, participants were shown a series of X’s and O’s on a screen. The letter X indicated that there was a 17% chance of getting a mild electric shock, while the O’s indicated that they were safe.
When participants knew that there was a chance of receiving a mild electric shock, the brain areas associated with threat response became activated.
Afterwards, the participants were told to hold hands with a close friend, and then it was the close friend who was about to receive a shock. At last, the participants were told to hold a stranger’s hand, and then it was the stranger who was about to receive a shock.
The study shows that the brain activity was almost identical when the participants were about to receive the shock as when their friends were about to receive the shock. However, when participants held a stranger’s hand, there was only a little brain activity in the threat response regions.
For this reason, it seems that people react to threats in a similar way when it comes to themselves and their friends. It seems that friends get relative priority over strangers.
This is probably due to the fact that people identify with familiar people to a greater extent than they do with strangers, which in turn contributes to greater emphatic bonds between them, and consequently a greater brain activity in the above-mentioned areas.
In this way, the findings may reflect a fundamental aspect of human empathy. The authors suggest that the identification with familiar people goes beyond simple empathy.
Indeed, Aron and colleagues (1997) have suggested that familiarity can be seen as a process in which the representation of self is expanded to include others (as cited in Beckes et al., 2013).