More Than a Feeling

An artistic rendering of two mirroring human heads and faces, with line art representing the brain in each one.
IU neuroscientist Aina Puce explains why empathy is the most important of human emotions.

Did you know that holding someone’s hand can alleviate pain?

According to Aina Puce, a neuroscientist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington, “[Touch] affects the blood flow to the brain areas that signal pain to your body. When someone holds your hand, it activates your touch pathways, which interfere with your pain pathways.”

Think of skinning your knee as a child. When a caring parent or friend held you afterward, it really did help the pain go away.

“There’s a lot of things like that in our bodies and brains that are important to learn,” said Puce. “And if we understand this area of research more thoroughly, we can make our lives better for each other.”

That altruistic notion of improving the lives of others is an underlying theme in Puce’s work. She’s dedicated over 40 years to studying why humans do what they do, an area of brain study called social neuroscience.

Puce recently took some time to chat with us about her work, illuminating the ways that electricity, brain function, and even blinking relate to one of our most important human emotions.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is social neuroscience?

Puce: Essentially, it’s research on how the brain functions during social interactions. Social neuroscience studies the brain activity that works together to produce the social behaviors we have between one another. There are a lot of things that go on in your body—things like chemistry and electricity—that the laws of math, physics, and chemistry can explain.

You’ve stated that humans have 27 distinct emotions, and empathy is the most important. Why is that?

Puce: Because we are a social species, whether we like it or not. And without empathy and compassion, we can’t help others who need care. We can’t be effective teachers or learners. We can’t have meaningful interactions with family, friends, or strangers. And of course, empathy also keeps us from harming one another.

Empathy helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to the situation. It’s typically associated with social behavior, and a lot of research shows that greater empathy leads to more helpful behavior.

Neuroscientist and IU professor Dr. Aina Puce joyfully smiles as she's professionally photographed for a portrait for the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences faculty directory.
In 2008, Aina Puce was named director of IU’s Imaging Research Facility and received the prestigious Eleanor Cox Riggs Professorship. The position was created through a generous donation by Eleanor Cox Riggs, BA’55. Photo courtesy of the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

How have you studied empathy, and what were some of your findings?

Puce: I study the precursors of empathy. There are many signals we send from our bodies that indicate someone is in tune with the needs of others. And there are certain kinds of visual cues that we, as researchers, look for to indicate if someone is paying attention—whether they’re understanding the essential social signals that others are sending when they require help.

So these are the critical things we must pick up on. We need to receive messages from other people effectively. That’s really what my work focuses on. How do our brains make sense of the movements of someone else’s face and body? How do we understand and interpret them? If we can’t do that properly, then we can’t engage in other high-order things like empathy.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from doing this work?

Puce: The most surprising thing is that we think we notice everything about others—but much of that noticing is done unconsciously. When we measure brain activity while observing someone, it’s very evident that the brain is responding to things the person is unaware of, such as body movements, eye contact, and other sorts of behaviors. A very simple example is how we respond to the blinking of other people.

Blinking? Can you elaborate?

Puce: Of course. One thing our brains notice is if someone blinks an awful lot or not at all. If someone is staring right at you, not blinking, your brain is going to register that. Similarly, if someone is blinking a lot, you’ll notice it. That’s going to be very disturbing to you. But there are also times when we blink in response to what people are saying as part of the conversation, so your brain will note that body movement, as well.

Our brain registers these things, and we may not necessarily be conscious of it, but it will all form an important part of an impression of someone. We’re informed not only by what we hear others say, but also by what we see visually—what their faces and bodies do.

These essential things tie into how we can experience—and develop—empathy. Being observant about what other people do allows you to get a better read on someone’s mental and emotional state. And then, if you can do that, it can lead you to be more accurate about what they are experiencing.

At the end of the day, why is the scientific study of empathy so important?

Puce: Well, if I don’t understand you, then you won’t understand me. And where will that leave us both?

We need to understand each other because we depend on each other.

This article was originally published in the 2023 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
Brittany King
Brittany Talissa King is a graduate of IU (BA'14), New York University (MA'19), and a writer for the IU Foundation.