Vicarious brain: In search of how your brain feels

Do you remember Dr. No, the first James Bond film? When the tarantula crawled on the hero’s chest, what did you see? The flickering of pixels on the screen? No, you most likely saw a scared secret agent with an itching chest that tries to kill a spider. Somehow your brain transformed the pixels into hidden states that are not visible to the eye, namely intentions and emotions.
Image© Valeria Gazzola
Grantee picture© Christian Keysers

Your body tensed in anticipation of his actions and your heart beat faster, as if scared in his stead. Intense experiences of sharing other people’s actions and emotions make cinema so captivating. But films only capitalise on human capacity at the core of this project; the capacity to slip into the skin of other people to vicariously experience their actions and share their emotions. Professor Christian Keysers leads the research project "VICARIOUSBRAIN", funded by a €1.8 million European Research Council Starting Grant, which aims to better understand the processes of empathy within our neurons.

Christian Keysers’ research project consists of two complementary analyses. Together with his team, he will examine how the network of regions in the brain involved in action observation - the so-called vicarious motor network - integrate information. They will focus on the direction of information flow between the different vicarious motor nodes to challenge traditional models of action observation.

While the first analysis tackles how we share others' actions, the second explores emotions. Prof. Keysers and his team will examine how neurons in brain regions associated with empathy respond during the experience and witnessing of emotions. His laboratory has already showed that while viewing the disgust of others, we activate a region of our brain (the insula) that is normally activated while we experience disgust ourselves. These vicarious emotional activations are similar to vicarious motor activations, except that they occur in regions associated with emotions rather than action execution.

Given the tremendous interest in emotional empathy across many fields, understanding its neural causes will open exciting new horizons in several areas. This research project will notably impact life sciences; contributing to progress in genetics but also to better therapies of psychiatric disorders of empathy (autism, schizophrenia and psychopathy). For robotics, it will concretise a biological example of how brains can process, predict the actions of others and read their feelings. In the long-run, these interactions through robotics will feedback into neuroscience, by testing whether their models indeed enable the prediction and perception of the actions of other organisms.

Prof. Christian Keysers is the 3000th grantee to be funded by the ERC. During an event in Amsterdam in January 2013, he commented: "To get an ERC grant is a dream come true and being the three thousandth grantee is very inspiring. I can now devote five years to solving what I think to be the most worthy research question in my field. It allows me to handpick an outstanding multidisciplinary team and gives me the freedom to conduct the best fundamental research. In a climate where the immediate applicability of science is often valued most, the ERC has become the patron for the brightest scientists pursuing curiosity-driven research and the backbone for a Europe of Ideas. It epitomises a Europe of intellectual innovation and excellence that makes me proud to be European."

Project: 

Vicarious brain

Principal Investigator: 
Prof. Dr. Christian Keysers
Host institution: 
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)
Project: 
Cracking the code and flow of empathy (VICARIOUSBRAIN)
ERC call: 
Starting Grant 2012
ERC funding: 
€ 1.8 million
Project duration: 
five years