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Shared Race, Social Group Seem to Help People Relate

Brain imaging study sheds light on empathic response

WEDNESDAY, July 1 (HealthDay News) -- Brain imaging technology reveals that familiarity breeds empathy, according to a new study.

Neuroimaging of the anterior cingulate cortex -- the area of the brain that is linked to emotional response -- shows more activity when a person observes someone get hurt who is of the same social group, such as the same race. The findings, in the July 1 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, would appear to confirm the long-suspected belief that people harbor basic, subconscious prejudices against those unlike themselves.

"This is a fascinating study of a phenomenon with important social implications for everything from medical care to charitable giving," Martha Farah, a University of Pennsylvania cognitive neuroscientist and neuroethicist who was not affiliated with the study, said in a news release issued by the journal's publisher.

The researchers, supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, had two groups of people -- one made up of whites and the other of Chinese -- watch videos in which a person appears to be pricked in the face with a needle or with a cotton swab. The observers showed increased empathic neural responses when the person in the video was of the same race as themselves during the needle prick. The neural activity was much less when a person of a different race was pricked with the needle.

"Our findings have significant implications for understanding real-life social behaviors and social interactions," study author Shihui Han, of Peking University in China, said in the news release.

Farah, however, said the study raised questions about whether race alone is what would trigger the brain's empathic response or whether other characteristics and life-experiences would temper an observer's reaction.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about teaching kids about empathy.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: Society for Neuroscience, news release, June 30, 2009

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