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

scanned people's brains as they read stories in which the protagonist experienced either physical or emotional pain. The brain regions that responded uniquely to emotional suffering overlapped with areas known to be involved in the ability to perceive what another person is thinking or feeling.

Failures of empathy

Hoping to see a correlation between empathy levels and amount of activity in those brain regions, the researchers then recruited Israelis and Arabs for a study in which subjects read stories about the suffering of members of their own groups or that of conflict-group members. The study participants also read stories about a distant, neutral group South Americans.

As expected, Israelis and Arabs reported feeling much more compassion in response to the suffering of their own group members than that of members of the conflict group. However, the brain scans revealed something surprising: Brain activity in the areas that respond to emotional pain was identical when reading about suffering by one's own group or the conflict group. Also, those activity levels were lower when Arabs or Israelis read about the suffering of South Americans, even though Arabs and Israelis expressed more compassion for South Americans' suffering than for that of the conflict group.

Those findings, published Jan. 23 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, suggest that those brain regions are sensitive to the importance of the opposing group, not whether or not you like them.

However, because the study did not reveal any correlation between the expression of empathy and the amount of brain activity, more study is needed before MRI can be used as a reliable measure of empathy levels, Saxe says.

"We thought there might be brain regions where the amount of activity was just a simple function of the amount of empathy that you experience," Saxe says. "Since that's not what we found, we don'
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Contact: Caroline McCall
cmccall5@mit.edu
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert

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