Being Moved by the Self and Others: Influence of Empathy on Self-Motion Perception
The observation of conspecifics influences our bodily perceptions and actions: Contagious yawning, contagious itching, or empathy for pain, are all examples of mechanisms based on resonance between our own body and others. While there is evidence for the involvement of the mirror neuron system in the processing of motor, auditory and tactile information, it has not yet been associated with the perception of self-motion. We investigated whether viewing our own body, the body of another, and an object in motion influences self-motion perception. We found a visual-vestibular congruency effect for self-motion perception when observing self and object motion, and a reduction in this effect when observing someone else's body motion. The congruency effect was correlated with empathy scores, revealing the importance of empathy in mirroring mechanisms. The data show that vestibular perception is modulated by agent-specific mirroring mechanisms. The observation of conspecifics in motion is an essential component of social life, and self-motion perception is crucial for the distinction between the self and the other. Finally, our results hint at the presence of a “vestibular mirror neuron system”.