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The following is an excerpt from Scientific American:

Psychologists have been interested in empathy for decades, but the approach of bringing in neuroscience to study the emotion is only in its adolescence. The first decade or so of work focused on establishing the independent yet interacting neural networks that underlie emotional and cognitive empathy. In 2004 neuroscientist Tania Singer, now at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues published a groundbreaking paper in Science that compared brain activity in a person experiencing pain with the same person's brain activity when observing a loved one experiencing pain. Sixteen women underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while their male partner sat nearby. Varied levels of painful stimulation were administered by an electrode to one or the other partner. A signal alerted the women when their partner was feeling pain. Some areas of the women's brains were activated only on receiving pain themselves, but others—most notably parts of the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex—lit up no matter who was hurting. Empathy activated the affective, or emotional, parts of the pain network but not the physical sensation of pain. That study and the many imaging studies that followed indicate that our core ability to empathize begins with the way the brain represents our own internal states and evolved to include our perception of what others are feeling.

I don't quite understand the last sentence: why is "evolved" instead of "evolves" used? What should be the subject of the verb "evolved"? If one parses this sentence, what are the two parts that the conjunction "and" right in front of "evolved" connects?

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    I doubt most people would be so picky about the tense switch. Idiomatically, it wouldn't really work to say our ability to empathise began with the way our brains reflect internal states, because that's a "timeless ongoing truth", not something that meaningfully "happened in the past". But clearly the evolution of that ability happened in the past, so a Past Tense form makes more sense, even if there might be a very minor syntactic clash for some readers. Perhaps you'd like it better with a Present Perfect form: ...and has evolved to include blah blah. – FumbleFingers Feb 4 '18 at 17:34
  • From answers below, I can see two opinions for the subject of "evolved" now: (1) "our core ability to empathize" (2)"the brain". – Jack Feb 4 '18 at 20:33
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The subject of "evolved" is "the brain," meaning the human brain in general and not a particular brain. So, the human brain "represents [present tense] our own internal states" and "evolved [past tense] to include our perception of what others are feeling."

As tchrist/FumbleFingers point out, "has evolved" would also work and might have been slightly easier to parse.

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In a comment, FumbleFingers wrote:

I doubt most people would be so picky about the tense switch. Idiomatically, it wouldn't really work to say our ability to empathise began with the way our brains reflect internal states, because that's a "timeless ongoing truth", not something that meaningfully "happened in the past". But clearly the evolution of that ability happened in the past, so a Past Tense form makes more sense, even if there might be a very minor syntactic clash for some readers. Perhaps you'd like it better with a Present Perfect form: ...and has evolved to include blah blah.

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    In the circumstances, I can hardly disagree with this answer! But I would just add that after seeing OP's comment below the question, it seems to me that switching to Present Perfect makes it "easier" to parse the subject of "evolved" as "the brain" (but I don't like that reading much; my vote for the subject remains "our core ability to empathize", regardless of that tense switch). – FumbleFingers Feb 5 '18 at 13:03
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I wrote to the author of the linked article. She told me that the subject of "evolved" should be "the brain":

The subject is "the brain." I’m guessing your confusion has to do with the mix of tenses but the "brain represents" internal states in the present, but the [human] “brain evolved” to allow us to take the perspective of others. "

Regardless of the possible ambiguity in the original sentence, I think it worth posting the author's opinion here.

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I think the meaning is this:

... with the way the brain represents our own internal states and (the way) it evolved (over the years) to include our perception of what others are feeling.

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The subject in question is, I believe, "our core ability to empathize."

"Evolves" would imply that the subject is undergoing change. In contrast, "evolved" implies that the subject has already undergone the relevant change. The text seems to be more interested in exploring what aspects of empathy might be considered applicable to all humans (which has "evolved") rather than how each individual might develop a different sense of empathy (which "evolves"). [In my experience (B.S. in Psychology), research into ongoing, individual processes would use a subjective stimulus (e.g., asking questions or suggesting ideas) or anecdotal evidence (case studies) rather than the objective stimulus (electrodes) mentioned here.]

The last sentence might then be broken down as:

That study and the many imaging studies that followed indicate that our core ability to empathize

(i) begins with the way the brain represents our own internal states and

(ii) evolved to include our perception of what others are feeling.

I'll add that the quoted paragraph provides support for (i), but does not mention, as far as I can tell, anything about (ii). That "evolution" is included in a summary sentence without apparently being part of the concepts being summarized is likely to cause confusion. Perhaps evolution is discussed elsewhere in the original text?

  • I think that if this were the case, the first part would have to be in past tense to make sense: "began with the way the brain represented our own internal states." – David Hammond Feb 6 '18 at 0:31
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I feel your pain. I think the problem is mostly one of meaning and whether or not the author has conveyed their idea well. There is an ambiguity in the sentence. The fact that you are concerned with the tense relationship between begins and evolved suggests you are treating "[...] begins with the way the brain represents our own internal states [...]" as the state from which the evolution originated. That is a reasonable reading of what is written. It would mean the word begins is being used twice here in two different senses. The first is as described above by FumbleFingers. The second would be an implication, rightly or wrongly, that it is the point from which the evolution began. We do this a lot, it is perfectly natural. The fact that there ought to be a different inflection for the second one doesn't seem to bother us.

However, I'm not sure that's what the author meant to do. I think he meant the two as separate statements about the present, with the evolutionary inception state being undefined. If you swap engage for begin, you get rid of the implication.

Empathy activated the affective, or emotional, parts of the pain network but not the physical sensation of pain. That study and the many imaging studies that followed indicate that our core ability to empathize engages with the way the brain represents our own internal states and evolved to include our perception of what others are feeling.

If nothing else, it shows that the tenses can progress that way as long as their meanings don't clash chronologically.

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