You’re 10. The lunch bell just rang. The epic and thrilling sport of kickball is about to begin. Now it’s time to pick teams. Today you’re relived to get picked in the middle. The other kids are getting picked. Now there’s just two left. You look out with sadness at the last two schmucks. One of them will end up getting picked second-to-last and one sorry kid will have to endure the gut-wrenching feeling of being the only one on either team that didn’t get picked at all. The second-to-last kid is picked. You look out at the face of that last pitiful kid. How do you feel?
If you answered, “Hey! I was that last kid!” you make a really good point. Before we look at empathy, let’s take a quick look at our own emotional pain. Researchers set up a virtual playground where participants were playing the videogame “cyberball” while in a brain scanner (fMRI). And then, in the equivalent of the playground, two of the players rejected the participant. What happened? Ouch. What did the researchers see? A part deep in the brain right between the temples called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) burned bright with activity. They asked the participants how bad it was, and they found that the more distress they felt, the brighter the ACC burned. Getting picked last for kickball is a terrible thing.
But what’s also terrible is watching someone get picked last. The experiment was repeated, but this time the participant watched while another player got rejected. What happened this time? Ouch again. Again, the ACC burned bright. Watching someone else get picked last is also a terrible thing.
It turns out that the ACC seems to be important for feeling any kind of pain. It lights up when you stub your toe or when you watch someone else stub their toe; it lights up when you get dumped, or when you hear about your friend getting dumped. One group even looked at patients who cannot, for neurological reasons, feel physical pain. They found that even these patients were still able to share a pain they never felt; their ACC was active when watching others experience physical pain.
This might lead you to think that the ACC was important in making people altruistic. You may think: the worse you feel about someone else’s situation, the more likely you are to help. The more pathetic-looking they make the African orphan on the commercial, the more likely you’ll donate money. But it’s false. Even though it seems to be an indicator of pain, it doesn’t seem that pain produces altruistic action. In the study of the cyberball watchers, the participants got a chance to write an email to the rejected player, and this was then rated by how helpful and comforting it was. Changes in ACC didn’t predict nice emails. In another study of people looking at pictures of hurricane victims and considering donating money, they found the same thing: ACC was active but didn’t predict generosity.
What did? A part of the brain between the temples near the top of the head (dmPFC). The more dmPFC activity, the more helpful the emails to the rejected cyberball players, and the more money was committed to the hurricane victims. Why?
To answer that, we need another experiment! This time, researchers tested a very strange hypothesis: the most selfless people were actually being selfish. In other words, they tested whether people’s generosity was because they felt bad for people in a bad situation, or whether it was because they considered themselves “one” with the others. Oneness, “reflects a sense of interpersonal unity, wherein the conceptions of self and other are not distinct but are merged to some degree.” They asked people how they would help various kinds of people (from strangers to family), in various situations (from a phone call to helping their orphaned kids) and found that the empathic concern was only important insofar as the people considered themselves one with the other person. Their altruism was driven by their oneness, not their empathy.
So what about our friend, the dmPFC? It turns out that it’s more active when we’re making evaluations about others, particularly when we’re considering others as a part of ourselves, a part of our group.
It seems that the emerging story is that empathy is an important human capacity. You can look at a person in pain, feel bad for him, and keep on moving. In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter how much it actually hurts you to see another in pain. So long as you think of the person as ‘him,’ you’ll probably walk on by (probably crossing to the other side of the road while you’re at it). But the more that you think of the other person as ‘me,’ the more likely you are to let your empathy drive you to action. Jesus may have been speaking quite literally when He said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Disclaimer: Professor Plumb, in the Library, with the Candlestick
Professor Plumb was in the library, but did he actually commit the murder? We see a provocative correlation, a brain region that lights up when you’re about to do good, that same region lighting up when you consider people part of your group, and the observation that feeling “oneness” with others lines up with altruistic action. All the pieces are in line for it to be true, but we don’t know for sure. That is to say, the above goes into the category of “speculative hypothesis.” All these observations might be explained by a third factor. Or it might turn out that some of these observations are actually false. Or an hundred other things. That’s the problem (and the fun) of speculation. So long as the speculation is backed up with a firm Theology (i.e. that we ought to obey Jesus regardless of whether there are discovered neural pathways to support His advice), it’s all in good fun.