Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Neuroscience of Empathy

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.


  1. That's one of the suggestions of the study: sympathy is a driver of generosity. But I think there are plenty of other motivations for generosity (not least among them being love or duty). But this part does line up with our subjective experience, doesn't it?

  2. Why are children in early adolescence generous? I don't think most young children (between birth and maybe 4yrs.) can grasp the full meaning of sympathy,empathy, love or even duty, yet the are more than helpful to help. Following mom or dad around the house helping with dishes or laundry, whatever the parent might be doing that day. Not only is the child learning new things in this endeavour, its enjoying itself as well. More than any reason I believe that we humans, for the most part are generous because just like children we like to help when we can and it makes us feel good doing it.

    In regards to generosity being motivated by a sense of duty, Ill get back to you on that, need a thinking sesh

    1. I think you're right in the child getting enjoyment out of helping; I think that's close to Plato's view on child rearing: children need to be taught to love the good by appetite/instinct even before they can appreciate it by reason. And as early as a child has a will, she has the ability to do good. It may be that the child knows "Mom said to pick up my toys" and can do good by being obedient to her parent. But I think most of the early 'generosity' you've described is to actual generosity what play shopping is to real shopping: it's a terribly important act (as all play is) that the child does in preparation for the real thing she will one day do as an adult.

    2. "I believe that we humans, for the most part are generous because just like children we like to help when we can and it makes us feel good doing it."

      It certainly does make us feel good when we do good. But why does it make us feel good? Virtue of all kinds (generosity or courage or temperance, etc) makes, but why does it make us happy? I think because our will delights in doing rightly, and our intellect delights in knowing truth. Virtue is knowing the good and then, by the will, training the body and passions to do the good by nature. But we can also learn to do bad by nature. There are plenty of ungenerous things that I do and feel a sick pleasure when I do (often involving competition with others); my feelings are disordered. I'd wager that the villains of history often felt good in committing atrocities. We are truly influenced by our feelings, but what affects our feelings? For that answer, we must take up the bold task of applying our will and intellect.

      Also, learning to "feel good" about being generous is important, but as the article suggests, training ourselves to "feel one" with another is probably even better.

      Great comments! They've really got me thinking!

    3. Does this mean that people have to teach children how to love before they can grasp at the reason? If so, I disagree and think that is a dangerous and is also my biggest pet peeve towards religion as a whole. Trying to teach a child something that in no way can be conceptualized by them, at least in the early stages of adolescence and specially by force ”you must do this” only brings on confusion because they do not possess the conscious reasoning to why they should hold such a view or practice of morality or virtue. (you do not start with advanced mathematics first because the concept of math has yet to be learned and has no reason.) If left to their own devices children will learn these things on their own journey of thought and emotion as their life progresses.

      I agree with you in part on why it makes us feel good and happy, but I would add that it is also a biological mechanism used to promote cooperation for the survival and procreation of the human race. Although due to an alarming amount of propaganda, hypocritical thinking and child hood indoctrination, I think that this “mechanism” gets suppressed, manipulated or even possibly erased or out of a majority of the worlds populace.

      ........Generosity by principle is a good thing, but not a duty. First, I would say that no one has the obligation or requirement to be generous. If its an obligation it no longer holds its virtue title, because it is not your will that brings its value into fruition, but a demand or expectation from an outside source which takes away your responsibility for the action. (You don't do it because you have to, but because you want to. That's what makes it Virtuous.) Also if for any reason you aren't being or can't be generous, does it mean that you have broken your obligation or strayed away from your duty? Secondly I would ask if by first you have to break another moral principle in order to be generous, has generosity in that case lost its virtue? . I also wonder if and or where guilt falls into this? Do people consciously/unconsciously use generosity as a crutch for immoral behavior?

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  4. "teach children how to love before they can grasp at the reason"

    Yes. Surely education must start before the age of reason. Otherwise there will be no age of reason. I think I agree with Plato (at least in part) on this point. In the Republic, he talks about training children's *affections* when they're young: teach them to love the good and hate the bad almost like animals (I think he calls them "noble puppies" at one point) who will like the familiar and dislike the unfamiliar. When they grow up and begin to reason, they will be understanding an old love. I don't think children will often develop morally if "left to their own devices" as evidenced by the multitude of behavioral problems in the schools that is, in my opinion, the result of parents who take your advice.

    "it is also a biological mechanism used to promote cooperation for the survival and procreation of the human race"

    I'm sure it's got very deep roots in biology. And when you start using words like "for" you're talking about final causes (which we really should do more). Unfortunately, I think the final cause of my warm feelings when I do good is not simply procreation.

    As for generosity, I think it's a type of kindness or love, and I think these are indeed cosmic obligations. The Moral Law is in force, whether or not you want to follow it. It is true that it is not "externally" enforced in the sense of governments or earthly punishments. But Stalin was still wrong, though his purges were legal.

    "If its an obligation it no longer holds its virtue title, because it is not your will that brings its value into fruition"

    I'll defend Aquinas' definition of virtue: "A virtue is quality of mind thanks to which we live rightly, which can never be used badly." If I am trained and obligated from a young age to be kind to the poor, when I am grown it will be a habit. I will do it without thinking about it. Every one of us has thousands of such good habits. Though I may not deserve praise for my effort at developing these virtues (though my parents may), I would possess the virtue of kindness. I think by Aquinas' definition, if you are being generous by robbing someone else (not that anyone would ever do that ;), you're not actually being generous. The virtue is dissolved in the evil of the act.

    Guilt is felt when we do something some part of us objects to, which is a strange schizophrenic state for any creature to be in. It, like all our senses, can warn us of real moral danger, or it can go awry and warn us of false moral danger (i.e. guilt at protesting an unjust government ala a follower of MLK or Washington). And yes, it has been shown that there is, even within individuals, a massive "moral licensing" effect. Feelings/thoughts of "I'm a good person" are highly associated with permitting bad behavior. The dieter who thinks "I ran this morning, I deserve ice cream" is just the tip of the self-righteous iceberg.