Empathy, the ability to identify and emulate the emotions of another individual, is a fundamental component of the human relational experience. The mirror neuron theory has been widely accepted as the physiological mechanism for empathy: upon perceiving the expression of another person’s emotions, mirror neurons are activated in the observer, creating in his mind a simulation of the observed expressions, and consequently activating an emotional response within the observer. Another fundamental, human attribute, is proprioception, i.e., the way we sense where our body parts are in relation to each other. This sense helps us to plan our movements and to move effectively in the physical world. A proprioceptively skilled observer, upon the perception of a particular body expression, will be able to render a closely accurate simulation of that body expression in their mind, thus, raising within the observer the associated emotion.
The current study aims to investigate the relationships between proprioceptive acuity, emotion recognition from whole body emotional expressions and emotional empathy. The research paradigm employed mixed methods, combining both quantitative and qualitative data-collection and analysis. Our hypotheses were that differences in proprioceptive acuity and in emotion recognition would lead to differences in emotion recognition, and that proprioceptive acuity will be correlated with emotion recognition, which in turn will be correlated with empathy.
In order to test our hypotheses, this study compared emotional recognition ability, proprioceptive acuity, and emotional empathy in 26 experienced dancers aged 18-45, 39 subjects with an athletic background aged 18-45 with no previous experience in dance, and 40 subjects aged 18-45 with a sedentary lifestyle and no previous experience in dance, and with no athletic background.
Our main analytical approach was three (dancers, athletes, sedentary) by two (male, female) analysis of variance models, in which we tested the all two-way effects (group, gender, and group X gender interaction) on emotional recognition, proprioceptive and empathy. Complementary regression models were presented to include proprioceptive and age as control on the cognitive and emotional empathy. This modeling approach allowed to test differences across study groups and genders, and to provide support or to abet the research hypotheses. A preliminary comparison across the three groups was based on Chi-Square test for the categorical measurements and the univariate Analysis of Variance model for the continuous variables.
To our surprise, we did not find any significant difference between the groups in terms of proprioceptive acuity, nor any significant correlations between proprioceptive acuity and emotion recognition or empathy. As for emotion recognition and empathy, we found differences between the groups, but not the ones we expected. We predicted that the subjects with sedentary lifestyles would have the lowest emotion recognition and empathy levels and that the dancers would have the highest levels, with the athletes in between. Instead, the results indicated that the athletes had significantly lower overall emotion recognition and disgust recognition than the dancers, with the sedentary lifestyle subjects in the middle. As for empathy, the athletes had significantly lower emotional empathy than both the sedentary and dancers groups, and significantly lower overall empathy compared to the dancers.
As for the relations between emotion recognition and empathy, we found that fear and neutral emotion recognition were significantly correlated with cognitive empathy and with overall empathy for the entire subject population. When the correlations were controlled for age, we found anger, fear and overall emotion recognition to be significantly correlated with cognitive empathy for the entire tested population. Specifically for athletes, fear and neutral emotion recognition were significantly correlated with cognitive empathy.
These difference in empathic tendencies and emotion recognition between subjects that engage in different types of physical activity is pronounced. Harnessing this knowledge carries great potential, indicating that the empathic tendencies of individuals can be affected by engagement in physical activity.