Empathy—the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes—is a quality often attributed to massage therapists. New research indicates that empathy is especially strong when we are considering a loved on, and that human brains are “hard wired” to empathize.

“With familiarity, other people become part of ourselves,” said James Coan, a psychology professor in the University of Virginia‘s College of Arts & Sciences, who used functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans to find that people closely correlate people to whom they are attached to themselves.

The researchers found, as they expected, that regions of the brain responsible for threat response – the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – became active under threat of shock to the self. In the case of threat of shock to a stranger, the brain in those regions displayed little activity.

However, when the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant became essentially identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.

The study appears in the August issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Related article: Who is the Most Empathetic of All?