Neuroscience and Mapping Empathy in the Brain

In Charles Kupchan’s important book, How Enemies Become Friends, he explores rapprochements involving Brazil and Argentina, Anglo-American negotiations in 2the 1800s as well as breakdowns in the creation of Singapore from Malaysia and crumbling of the Concert of Europe post-1848. Diplomacy is the solution, he concludes.

What if we could better understand the empathic responses necessary to negotiate–rather than flight–by tracking these instincts in the brain? Jeneen Interlandi explores this in an interesting article in the NYT Magazine, looking into the case of Roma in Hungary and how neural focus groups can unlock the key understanding bias and ancient hatreds.

But the picture remains incomplete. We still need to map a host of other empathy-related tasks — like judging the reasonableness of people’s arguments and sympathizing with their mental and emotional states — to specific brain regions. And then we need to figure out how these neural flashes translate into actual behavior: Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare? Why is empathizing across groups so much more difficult? And what, if anything, can be done to change that calculus?

So far, Bruneau says, the link between f.M.R.I. data and behavior has been tenuous. Many f.M.R.I. studies on empathy involve scanning subjects’ brains while they look at images of hands slammed in doors or of faces poked with needles. Scientists have shown that the same brain regions light up when you watch such things happen to someone else as when you experience them or imagine them happening to you. “To me, that’s not empathy,” Bruneau says. “It’s what you do with that information that determines whether it’s empathy or not.” A psychopath might demonstrate the same neural flashes in response to the same painful images but experience glee instead of distress.

via The Brain’s Empathy Gap – The New York Times.


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