The roots of empathy: the shared manifold hypothesis and the neural basis of intersubjectivity

Psychopathology. Jul-Aug 2003;36(4):171-80. doi: 10.1159/000072786.


Starting from a neurobiological standpoint, I will propose that our capacity to understand others as intentional agents, far from being exclusively dependent upon mentalistic/linguistic abilities, be deeply grounded in the relational nature of our interactions with the world. According to this hypothesis, an implicit, prereflexive form of understanding of other individuals is based on the strong sense of identity binding us to them. We share with our conspecifics a multiplicity of states that include actions, sensations and emotions. A new conceptual tool able to capture the richness of the experiences we share with others will be introduced: the shared manifold of intersubjectivity. I will posit that it is through this shared manifold that it is possible for us to recognize other human beings as similar to us. It is just because of this shared manifold that intersubjective communication and ascription of intentionality become possible. It will be argued that the same neural structures that are involved in processing and controlling executed actions, felt sensations and emotions are also active when the same actions, sensations and emotions are to be detected in others. It therefore appears that a whole range of different "mirror matching mechanisms" may be present in our brain. This matching mechanism, constituted by mirror neurons originally discovered and described in the domain of action, could well be a basic organizational feature of our brain, enabling our rich and diversified intersubjective experiences. This perspective is in a position to offer a global approach to the understanding of the vulnerability to major psychoses such as schizophrenia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Communication
  • Emotions
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Schizophrenia / physiopathology
  • Self Concept
  • Social Behavior*