Babies just four months old display early signs of empathy, scientists have discovered.
When they see another individual’s hand being touched, it has an effect on the “touch centres” of their brains, research has shown.
Empathy, the ability to stand in another person’s shoes and share his or her feelings, is considered a defining human trait.
The new research suggests that the foundations of empathy may be something we are born with.
Scientists placed electrode “caps” on the heads of 15 four-month-old babies to monitor activity in the region of their brains that responds to touch.
The infants were then shown short video clips of a paint brush either gently touching another person’s hand, or touching a table surface next to the hand.
At the same time a vibrating “tactor” device fitted inside scratch mittens gave the babies a touch sensation.
Watching someone else being touched had an effect on the babies’ perception of touch to their own hands, the study showed.
Peaks in neuron activity linked to the vibrating mittens were suppressed, indicating that the touch centre in the babies’ brains was being distracted.
The same effect was not seen when the babies watched the paint brush touch an inanimate table surface.
Lead scientist Professor Andy Bremner, from Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “We know that in adults seeing other people being touched, or touching objects, activates similar brain areas as when we experience touch ourselves.
“However, we have only just begun to study how this ‘vicarious mapping’ of experiences, something vital to feeling empathy, develops in early life.
“We found that in these young babies the prominent ‘peaks’ in activity in brain regions related to touch were significantly affected by watching someone else’s hand being touched.
“It suggests that, even at just four months, babies can, to some extent, vicariously ‘feel’ what’s happening to another person, and this might represent the early sensory origins of the empathic responses which we as adults have for others.”
The findings appear in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.