Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

The ‘Meeting of Bodies’: Empathy and Basic Forms of Shared Experiences

Abstract

In recent years there has been an increasing focus on a crucial aspect of the ‘meeting of minds’ problem (Gallotti and Frith, Trends Cogn Sci 17(4):160–165, 2013), namely the ability that human beings have for sharing different types of mental states such as emotions, intentions, and perceptual experiences. In this paper I examine what counts as basic forms of ‘shared experiences’ and focus on a relatively overlooked aspect of human embodiment, namely the fact that we start our journey into our experiential life within the experiencing body of a second person, i.e. our mothers. For example, Zahavi and Rochat (Consciousness Cogn 36:543–553, 2015) recently draw on phenomenological insights and developmental studies in order to support the idea that empathy (with its preservation of self-other differentiation) must be considered a central precondition for experiential sharing. Here I suggest that the defence of the primacy of empathy over experiential sharing might reveal how we are often mislead in our understanding of more basic forms of shared experiences. I argue that while previous approaches mainly defined experiential sharing by using the case of visual experience as a paradigmatic example of ‘togetherness’ (e.g. face-to-face encounters, watching a movie together (Zahavi, Self and other: exploring subjectivity, empathy and shame, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014), it is fruitful to consider the case of pregnancy and intersubjective touch in early infancy (skin-to-skin encounters) as a more basic model of experiential sharing in general. I conclude that shared experiences are phenomena emerging first and foremost from a ‘meeting of bodies’ rather than of minds and as such they precede rather than presuppose empathetic abilities.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    For example Batson (2009) identifies at least eight uses of the term “empathy” in the literature. I would like to thank one anonymous reviewer for helpful comments regarding the definition of the concept “empathy”.

  2. 2.

    Motor neurons, originally found in the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque monkey, respond both when the monkey performs a particular goal-directed act and when it observes another individual performing a similar action.

  3. 3.

    Embodiment refers to a current theoretical model—heralded as the new paradigm to think about the self-other relation—which builds upon the insight that our physical and socio-emotional experiences do not occur in a vacuum, but they are given to us through our body, an organism situated in a specific context. In a nutshell, the embodiment approach typically highlights: (a) the anchoring of subjectivity in bodily experiences; (b) the importance of sensorimotor abilities and bodily situatedness for cognition; (c) the developmental role that the body has in shaping the mind and the social connectedness with others (Varela et al. 1991; Gallagher 2000; Thompson 2007; Chemero 2009; de Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007).

  4. 4.

    I would like to thank one anonymous reviewer for pressing clarifications on this point.

  5. 5.

    “Primary intersubjectivity” has been roughly defined a set of emotional, perceptual and sensorimotor capacities that allow the infant to meaningfully interact with others via pre-linguistic bodily mediated “protoconversations”.

  6. 6.

    One classic example is facial imitation in newborns (Meltzoff and Moore 1977). However, a recent longitudinal study with a large sample size and robust measures found no convincing evidence that newborn babies can imitate facial gestures, hand movements or vocalisations (Oostenbroek et al. 2016) (see also Heyes 2016).

  7. 7.

    Preclinical studies have evidenced that prenatal stress can directly alter maternal care and have an enduring effect on the offspring’s and the mother’s brain (Champagne and Meaney 2006).

  8. 8.

    Castiello and colleagues report for example that “movement duration and deceleration time were longer for other-directed movements than for movements towards the self or the uterine wall. These differences in kinematic profiles were surprisingly consistent across foetuses and held independently of the gestation period considered, suggesting that already starting from the 14th week of gestation intra-pair contact resulted from the planning and performance of social movements obeying specific kinematic patterns” (2010: p. e13199).

  9. 9.

    I would like to thank one anonymous reviewer for helpful criticisms on this point.

  10. 10.

    This phenomenon is not limited to gaze but involves also other modalities (Moll and Khalulyan 2017).

  11. 11.

    Whereas purely sensory touch is conveyed by skin mechanoreceptors projecting to the thalamus and primary somatosensory cortex, the neurophysiological system for affective touch (Vallbo et al. 1999) seem to rely on a distinct subgroup of mechanoreceptors: tactile C-fibres (CT), responding only to slow (between 1 and 10 cm/s), caress-like touch and leading to subjective pleasantness (Löken et al. 2009).

  12. 12.

    The influential Predictive Processing (PP) framework (Friston 2005) stipulates that humans are biological, self-organizing agents that need to occupy a limited repertoire of sensory states for homeostatic reasons (for example, humans need to stay within certain ranges in environmental temperature in order to survive). However, given the inescapable ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty of the signals an organism receives from the world over his lifespan, we risk finding ourselves in states for longer periods than those we could biologically sustain (e.g. in cold climates). Hence, we need to be able to predict (infer) the causes of our possible sensory states despite the limited or noisy information available to our sensory organs (von Helmholtz 1878/1971). The “solution” found by our brain in order to solve the problem of sensory uncertainty and to reduce “free energy” is to engage in a form of “predictive processing” in building up probabilistic representations of the causes (e.g. the weather) of our future states (e.g. our bodily temperature) on the basis of noisy sensory information. In other terms, it generates hypotheses (‘generative models’) of the hidden causes of sensory input (see Hohwy 2014; Clark 2013; Fotopoulou 2015; Allen and Friston 2016). The PP framework has been also used as a formal description of how multisensory information integration underpins minimal forms of self-awareness (see Apps and Tsakiris 2013 for a review).

References

  1. Allen M, Friston K (2016) From cognitivism to autopoiesis: towards a computational framework for the embodied mind. Synthese. doi:10.1007/s11229-016-1288-5

  2. Apps MAJ, Tsakiris M (2013) The free-energy self: A predictive coding account of self-recognition. Neurosci Biobehav Rev Apr. 41:85–97

  3. Barrett Feldmann L (2017) How emotions are made. The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston

  4. Batson CD (2009) These things called empathy: eight related but distinct phenomena. In: Decety J, Ickles W (eds) The social neuroscience of empathy. Social neuroscience. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 3–15

  5. Birch L (1999) Development of food preferences. Annu Rev Nutr 19:41–62

  6. Blanke O, Metzinger T (2009) Full-body illusions and minimal phenomenal selfhood. Trends Cogn Sci 13:7–13

  7. Braten S (1988) Dialogic mind: the infant and the adult in protoconversation. In: Carvallo M (ed) Nature, cognition and system, vol I. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp 187–205

  8. Bratman ME (1999) Faces of intention. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  9. Brinck I, Reddy V, Zahavi D (2017) The primacy of the ‘we’? In: Durt C, Fuchs T, Tewes C. (eds) Embodiment, enaction, and culture—investigating the constitution of the shared world. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 131–147

  10. Castiello U, Becchio C, Zoia S, Nelini C, Sartori L et al (2010) Wired to be social: the ontogeny of human interaction. PLoS ONE 5(10):e13199

  11. Champagne FA, Meaney MJ (2006) Stress during gestation alters postpartum maternal care and the development of the offspring in a rodent model. Biological Psychiatry 59(12):1227–1235

  12. Chemero A (2009) Radical embodied cognition. MIT Press, Cambridge

  13. Ciaunica A, Fotopoulou A (2016) ‘The touched self: psychological and philosophical perspectives on proximal intersubjectivity and the self’. In: Durt C, Fuchs T, Tewes C. (eds) Embodiment, enaction, and culture—investigating the constitution of the shared world. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 173–192

  14. Clark A (2013) Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents and the future of cognitive science. Behavi Brain Sci 36:181–204

  15. Craig AD (2009) How do you feel-now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nat Rev Neurosci 10:59–70

  16. Craig AD (2010) The sentient self. Brain Struct Funct 214(5–6):563–577

  17. Crane T, French G (2015) The Problem of Perception in n E.N. Zalta, ed., Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/

  18. Critchley HD, Wiens S, Rotshtein P, Öhman A, Dolan RD (2004) Neural systems supporting interoceptive awareness. Nat Neurosci 7:189–195195

  19. de Jaegher H, Di Paolo E (2007) Participatory sense-making: An enactive approach to social cognition. Phenomenol Cogn Sci 6:485–507

  20. de Vignemont F, Jacob P (2012) What is it like to feel another’s pain? Philos Sci 79(2):295–316

  21. Duhn L (2010) The importance of touch in the development of attachment. Adv Neonatal Care 10(6):294–300

  22. Fairhurst MT, Löken L, Grossmann T (2014) Physiological and behavioral responses reveal 9-month-old infants’ sensitivity to pleasant touch. Psychological Sci 25(5):1124–1131

  23. Farmer H, Tsakiris M (2012) Touching hands: a neurocognitive review of intersubjective touch. In: Radman Z. (ed) The Hand, an organ of the mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 103–130

  24. Filippetti ML, Lloyd-Fox S, Longo M, Farroni T, Johnson MH (2014) Neural mechanisms of body awareness in infants. Cereb Cortex, 1–9

  25. Fotopoulou K (2015) The virtual self- mentalisation of the body as revealed in anosognosia for hemiplegia. Conscious Cogn 33:500–510

  26. Fotopoulou A, Tsakiris M (2017) Mentalising homeostasis; the social origins of interoceptive inference: replies to commentaries. Neuropsychoanal J 19:71–76

  27. Friston K (2005) A theory of cortical responses. Philosophical Trans R Soc Lond 360:815–836

  28. Fuchs T, De Jaegher H (2009) Enactive intersubjectivity: Participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation. Phenomenol Cogn Sci 8/4:465–486

  29. Gallace A, Spence C (2010) The science of interpersonal touch: an overview. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 34(2):246–259

  30. Gallagher S (2000) Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science. Trends Cogn Sci 4(1):14–21

  31. Gallese V (2013) Mirror neurons, embodied simulation and a second-person approach to mind reading. Cortex 49:2954–2956

  32. Gallese V, Keysers C, Rizzolatti G (2004) A unifying view of the basis of social cognition. Trends Cogn Sci 8/9:396–403

  33. Gallotti M, Frith C (2013) Social cognition in the we-mode. Trends Cogn Sci 17(4):160–165

  34. Gallotti M, Fairhurst M, Frith C (2017) Alignment in social interactions. Conscious Cogn 48:253–261. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.12.002

  35. Gilbert M (1989) On social facts. Routledge, London

  36. Heron J (1970) The Phenomenology of Social Encounter: the Gaze. Philos Phenomenol Res 2:243–264

  37. Heyes C (2016) Imitation: not in our genes. Curr Biol 26:R412–R414

  38. Hobson RP (2002) The cradle of thought: exploring the origins of thinking. Macmillan, London

  39. Hohwy J (2014) The self-evidencing brain. Noûs 50(2):259–285

  40. Jardine JA, Szanto T (2017) Empathy in the Phenomenological Tradition. In: Maibom HL (ed) The Routledge handbook of philosophy of empathy Chap. 8. pp. 86–97. Routledge, London

  41. Kleckner IR, Zhang J, Touroutoglou A, Chanes L, Xia C, Simmons WK, Quigley KS, Dickerson BC, Barrett LF (2017) Evidence for a large-scale brain system supporting allostasis and interoception in humans. Nat Hum Behav. doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0069

  42. Krueger J (2012) Seeing mind in action. Phenomenol Cogn Sci 11(2):149–173

  43. Krueger J (2013) Merleau-Ponty on shared emotions and the joint ownership thesis. Cont Philos Rev 46(4):509–531

  44. Krueger J (2015) The affective ‘we’: self-regulation and shared emotions. In: Szanto Th., Moran D. (eds) The phenomenology of sociality: discovering the ‘we’. Routledge, London, pp 263–280

  45. Lee G (2016) Does Experience Have Phenomenal Properties? Philos Top 44(2):201–230.

  46. León F, Zahavi D (2016) Phenomenology of experiential sharing: the contribution of Schutz and Walther. In: Salice A, Schmid HB (eds) The phenomenological approach to social reality: history, concepts, problems. (pp. 219–234). Chapter. Springer, Cham (Studiesthe Philosophy of Sociality, Vol. 6)

  47. Löken LS, Wessberg J, Morrison I, McGlone F, Olausson H (2009) Coding of pleasant touch by unmyelinated afferents in humans. Nat Neurosci 12:547–548

  48. Lymer J (2011) Merleau-Ponty and the affective maternal-foetal relation. Parrhesia 13:126–143

  49. Mahler M, Bergman A, Pine F (1975) The psychological birth of the human infant: Symbiosis and individuation. Basic Books, New York

  50. McGlone F, Vallbo Å, Olausson H, Löken L, Wessberg J (2007) Discriminative touch and emotional touch. Can J Exp Psychol 61(3):173–183

  51. Meltzoff AN, Moore MK (1977) Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science 198:75–78

  52. Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK (2001) Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics 107(6):e88–e88

  53. Merleau-Ponty M (1945) Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Éditions Gallimard; English translation: C. Smith. Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, p 1962

  54. Michael J (2014) Towards a consensus about the role of empathy in interpersonal understanding. Topoi 33(1):157–172

  55. Moll H, Khalulyan A (2017) Not see, not hear, not speak”: Preschoolers think they cannot perceive or address others without reciprocity. J Cogn Develo 18(1):152–162. doi:10.1080/15248372.2016.1243116

  56. Moll H, Arellano D, Guzman A, Cordova X, Madrigal JA (2015) Preschoolers’ mutualistic conception of seeing is related to their knowledge of the pronoun “each other. J Exp Child Psychol 131:170–185

  57. Montagu A (1971) Touching: the human significance of the skin. Columbia University Press, New York

  58. Morrison I, Loken LS, Olausson H (2010) The skin as a social organ. Exp Brain Res 204:305–314

  59. Nagel TH (1974) What it is like to be a bat. Philos Rev 83(4):435–450

  60. Nida-Rümelin M (2017) Self-awareness. Rev Philos Psychol (1–28)

  61. Oostenbroek J et al (2016) Comprehensive longitudinal study challenges the existence of neonatal imitation in humans. Curr Biol 26(10):1334–1338. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.047

  62. Overgaard S (2007) wittgenstein and other minds: rethinking subjectivity and intersubjectivity with Wittgenstein, Levinas, and Husserl. Routledge, London

  63. Pacherie E (2007) Is collective intentionality really primitive? In: Beaney M, Penco C, Vignolo M. (eds) Mental processes: representing and inferring. Cambridge Scholars Press, Newcastle upon Tyne pp153–175

  64. Piaget J (1954/1981) Intelligence and affectivity: Their relation during child development. Annual Reviews, Palo Alto

  65. Reddy V (2008) How infants know minds. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

  66. Rizzolatti G, Craighero L (2004) The mirror-neuron system. Annu Rev Neurosci 27:169–192

  67. Rochat P, Striano T (2000) Perceived self in infancy. Infant Behav Dev 23(3–4):513–530

  68. Rochat P (2004) The emergence of self-awareness as co-awareness in early development. In: Zahavi D, Grünbaum T, Parnas, J. (eds) The structure and development of self—consciousness. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam, pp 1–20

  69. Schetter D, Tanner L (2012) Anxiety, depression and stress in pregnancy: implications for mothers, children, research, and practice. Curr Opin Psychiatry 25(2):141–148

  70. Schmid HB (2014) Plural Self-Awareness. Phenomenol Cogn Sci 13(1):7–24

  71. Schweikard D, Schmid, H-B (2013) “Collective Intentionality”. In: Zalta, E. (Ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition) Accessed October 14 2014. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/collective-intentionality

  72. Searle JR (1990) Collective intention and action. In: Pollack Sidney et. al. (eds) Intention in communication. MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., pp 404–415

  73. Seth AK (2013) Interoceptive inference, emotion, and the embodied self. Trends Cogn Sci 17:565–573

  74. Stern DN (1985) The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. Basic Books, New York

  75. Thompson E (2007) Mind in life: biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Harvard University Press, London

  76. Tomasello M (2009) The origins of human communication. MIT Press, Cambridge

  77. Trevarthen CB (1979) Communication and cooperation in early infancy: a description of primary intersubjectivity. In: Bullowa M (ed) Before speech. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 321–347

  78. Tuomela R (2013) Social ontology: collective intentionality and group agents. Oxford University Press, New York

  79. Vallbo AB, Olausson H, Wessberg J (1999) Unmyelinated afferents constitute a second system coding tactile stimuli of the human hairy skin. J Neurophysiol 81:2753–2763

  80. Varela F, Thompson E, Rosch E (1991) The Embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press, Cambridge

  81. Venter C, Pereira B, Voigt K, Grundy J, Clayton CB, Higgins B, Dean T (2009) Factors associated with maternal dietary intake, feeding and weaning practices, and the development of food hypersensitivity in the infant. Pediatr Allerg Immunol 20(4):320–327

  82. von Helmholtz H (1878/1971). The facts of perception. In: Kahl R. (ed), Selected writings of herman von Helmholtz. Weslyan University Press, Middletown

  83. Zahavi D (2011a) The experiential self: objections and clarifications. In: Siderits M, &amp Evan Thompson, Zahavi Dan (eds) Self, no self? perspectives from analytical, phenomenological, and indian traditions. OUP, Oxford

  84. Zahavi D (2011b) Empathy and direct social perception: a phenomenological proposal. Rev Philos Psychol 2(3):541–558

  85. Zahavi D (2014) Self and other: exploring subjectivity, empathy and shame-. Oxford University Press, Oxford

  86. Zahavi D (2015a) Self and other: from pure ego to co-constituted we. Contin Philos Rev 48(2):143–160

  87. Zahavi D (2015b) You, me and we: the sharing of emotional experiences. J Conscious Stud 22:84–101

  88. Zahavi D (2016) Thin, thinner, thinnest: Defining the minimal self. In: Christoph D; Thomas F; Christian T (ed) Embodiment, enaction, and culture: investigating the constitution of the shared world. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 193–199

  89. Zahavi D (2017) Embodied mentalization and selfhood: commentary on ‘mentalizing homeostasis: the social origins of interoceptive inference’ by Fotopoulou and Tsakiris. Neuro-Psychoanal 19(1):67–69

  90. Zahavi D, Rochat P (2015) Empathy ≠ sharing: perspectives from phenomenology and developmental psychology. Conscious Cogn 36:543–553

  91. Zoia S, Blason L, D’Ottavio G, Bulgheroni M, Pezzetta E, Scabar A et al (2007) Evidence of early development of action planning in the human foetus: a kinematic study. Exp Brain Res 176:217–226

Download references

Acknowledgements

Anna Ciaunica was supported by a Foundation for Science and Technology Fellowship Grant (FCT) (SFRH/BPD/94566/2013).

Author information

Correspondence to Anna Ciaunica.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ciaunica, A. The ‘Meeting of Bodies’: Empathy and Basic Forms of Shared Experiences. Topoi 38, 185–195 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-017-9500-x

Download citation

Keywords

  • Empathy
  • Minimal self
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Touch