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NewAge Stuff | New Age | Learning and living
Author Empathy

Posts: 37
Location: Casselberry, FL
Joined: 10.01.05
Posted on 29-03-05 07:41
We can literally feel the pain of strangers

Special to World Science

In research that may add perspective to a centuries-old debate over whether people are basically altruistic or selfish, scientists have found that witnessing pain in strangers triggers much of the same brain activity that goes on when we feel it directly.

Participants in the study watched pictures of strangers in painful situations (top.) This sparked activty in brain regions associated with pain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (the larger bright area in the bottom image). Credit: Jean Decety/University of Washington, Seattle. Some psychologists claim true altruism flows from empathy-the ability to share others' feelings. Researchers now claim to have found a biological basis for this capacity. Future studies using similar techniques could determine whether animals have it, they add.

"Our findings suggest that there is a partial cerebral commonality between perceiving pain in another individual and experiencing it oneself," wrote Jean Decety and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. in a paper in the Feb. 1, 2005 issue of the research journal Neuroimage.

Previous research has linked certain brain processes to the direct, physical feeling of pain. The researchers found that viewing pictures of strangers in painful situations didn't triggered these processes, but did elicit most of the other brain activities known from previous studies to be associated with pain. These are generally presumed to represent pain's emotional components.

The study utilized functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a technique to assess the amount of brain activity in different brain regions by measuring the amount of oxygen they consume. The researchers showed 15 study participants photographs of other people's hands and feet in painful situations, such as getting their toes caught in a door.

They found that watching the painful pictures stimulated activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, the two structures deep in the brain. These structures are those most consistently found from previous studies to be activated in connection with one's own pain, although they don't appear to be linked with the physical sensation of it, the researchers said.

The study was similar in some ways to another one published last year by British researchers. This team obtained much the same results with participants who were watching their loved ones experiencing pain.

"Our human capacity to 'tune in' to others when exposed to their feelings may explain why we do not always behave selfishly in human interactions but instead engage in altruistic, helping behaviour," said Tania Singer of University College London, an author of that study.

The newer University of Washington study suggests these processes occur not only when we see our loved ones in front of us hurting, but also when we view photographs of strangers. These findings show the basic components of empathy "are underpinned by specific neural systems," wrote Decety and a colleague, Philip L. Jackson, in last June's issue of the research journal Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews. It would be a good idea to conduct similar studies in animals to assess whether they feel empathy, Decety added.

But the findings won't necessarily end the debate over whether humans are basically altruistic or selfish. While some researchers, such as University of Kansas social psychologist Dan Batson, claim empathy leads directly to altruism, others dispute this. Brian P. Lewis of the University of California, Los Angeles, has argued that empathy can exist quite well without altruism. This is because the "self" isn't necessarily located in a single individual. Therefore, we can empathize with and help someone else simply because we see ourselves in them.

"In modem theories of the self, as well as in current evolutionary thought, important features of the self can be located outside of the person and inside others. . The possibility exists, then, that empathy associated helping is not selfless but is rooted in the (usually implicit) desire to help that part of the self that is located in the other."

Source: SCR


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