Feeling what another feels; stepping into someone’s shoes; entering into another’s inner life; identifying with another; these and many other descriptions have been given to describe empathy. They all suggest some sort of identification with the state of another; an emotional “knowing” of another’s life. The truth might be even more interesting.
One of the views on empathy involves the idea perspective-taking diminishes the division between self and other. Werner (1980) proposed that empathic behavior is selfishly motivated because it involves an “extension of self,” lessening the dissimilarity between the self and other.
This study can be boiled down to 3 experiments; using the threat of electrical shock to see what parts of the brain activate when 1) the self is threatened 2) a friend is threatened, and 3) a stranger is threatened.
The research found the same patterns of activation for case 1) and 2) but not when a stranger was threatened. This – along with some other research – leads the authors to suggest the brain represents a threat to a friend as it were a threat to the self and that strong social bonds blur the self-other distinction.
While this study is not about dogs, it’s also not “not” about dogs and the brain regions involved – anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – are not uniquely human or have analogues.
Empathy is a strong motivating factor in prosocial behavior – like coming to the aid of another – and various studies suggest dogs may be capable of empathy. There are also countless of reported cases of dogs with no history of aggression leaping into aggressive defense when their owners were threatened.
Do dogs also experience this blurring in the self-other distinction? I have no idea nor will I speculate. I think it would make an interesting study.
Beckes L, Coan JA, & Hasselmo K (2013). Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 8 (6), 670-7 PMID: 22563005
Werner DM (1980). The self in procosial action. In DM Werner & RR Vallacher (Eds); The self in social psychology (pp. 131-157) New York: Oxford University Press. http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/Wegner 1989 Ch. 6 The self in prosocial action.pdf (direct to PDF)
Human Brains Are Hardwired for Empathy, Friendship, Study Shows