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


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.

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  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).


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

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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

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  • Empathy
  • Minimal self
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Touch