Japanese scientists show how we understand effort

Can you tell when someone is really making an effort? Researchers in Japan believe they have identified the neural basis that governs the emotions we feel when witnessing physical activity. The findings are expected to help understand how we empathize with others and develop methods to improve communications skills.

The group, headed by Kazuyuki Kanosue, professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University’s Faculty of Sport Sciences, conducted research involving people being shown clips of a thin man and a more muscular individual lifting light and heavy dumbbells, and observed brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The results showed brain regions such as the temporo-parietal junction, superior temporal sulcus, visual cortex were activated when subjects saw the men lifting the heavy dumbbell. The right temporo-parietal junction was less responsive in front of the built man lifting the light dumbbell — where least effort was required. The conclusion is that this is the region of the brain that processes the effort people are making.

Previous research into similar areas was said to be influenced by the “mirror neuron,” where subjects understood if a person was pleased due to their facial expressions. This time, the clips were deliberately framed to exclude the face in order not to affect the subjects’ perception.

Temporo-parietal junction activity was not seen to relate to the mirror neuron. It was found that subjects’ understanding of the purpose of an action and understanding emotions are processed in different areas of the brain.

To identify which regions understand the intentions or purposes of other people’s actions, brain activity was measured in subjects watching people engaging in different tasks. In terms of understanding emotions, most research has involved subjects observing facial images or listening to short stories. Few studies have been conducted on the neural basis that reads emotions when subjects observe actions.

“The research will help us understand the brain mechanisms of being moved or feeling sympathy when watching sports,” Kanosue said. “If we can understand the brain mechanism of feeling sympathy with the efforts of others, it will help develop methods to improve communications skills,” he said.

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