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MIT neuroscientists explore how longstanding conflict influences empathy for others
Date:1/24/2012

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- MIT postdoc Emile Bruneau has long been drawn to conflict not as a participant, but an observer. In 1994, while doing volunteer work in South Africa, he witnessed firsthand the turmoil surrounding the fall of apartheid; during a 2001 trip to visit friends in Sri Lanka, he found himself in the midst of the violent conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military.

Those chance experiences got Bruneau, who taught high school science for several years, interested in the psychology of human conflict. While teaching, he also volunteered as counselor for a conflict-resolution camp in Ireland that brought Catholic and Protestant children together. At MIT, Bruneau is now working with associate professor of cognitive neuroscience Rebecca Saxe to figure out why empathy the ability to feel compassion for another person's suffering often fails between members of opposing conflict groups.

"What are the psychological barriers that are put up between us in these contexts of intergroup conflict, and then, critically, what can we do to get past them?" Bruneau asks.

Bruneau and Saxe are also trying to locate patterns of brain activity that correlate with empathy, in hopes of eventually using such measures to determine how well people respond to reconciliation programs aimed at boosting empathy between groups in conflict.

"We're interested in how people think about their enemies, and whether there are brain measures that are reliable readouts of that," says Saxe, who is an associate member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research. "This is a huge vision, of which we are at the very beginning."

Before researchers can use tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate whether conflict-resolution programs are having any effect, they need to identify brain regions that respond to other people's emotional suffering. In a study published Dec. 1 in Neuropsychologia, Saxe and Bruneau
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Contact: Caroline McCall
cmccall5@mit.edu
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert

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