Why do some human groups appear to hate each other? New research by a group of neuroscientists attempts to use brain imaging to determine how the brain responds to empathy and conflict-resolution.
Drs. Emile Bruneau and Rebecca Saxe of Massachusetts Institute of Technology are studying why empathy — the ability to feel compassion for another person’s suffering — often fails between members of opposing 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 said.
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,” said Saxe. “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 an earlier study, Saxe and Bruneau 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.
From this knowledge, the researchers designed an experiment that they hoped would show a correlation between empathy levels and amount of activity in those brain regions.
They 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.
This suggests particular brain regions are sensitive to the importance of the opposing group, not whether or not you like them.
These findings are published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. A short video interview with Bruneau and Saxe about their groundbreaking work can be found on the MIT website.
Joan Chiao, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, said those brain regions may be acting as a “thermometer” for conflict.
“It’s a really fascinating study because it’s the first to examine the neural basis of people’s behavior in longstanding conflicts, as opposed to groups that are distant and don’t have a long history of intergroup strife,” said Chiao, who was not involved in the research.
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 said.
“Since that’s not what we found, we don’t know what the amount of activity in these brain regions really means yet. This is basically a first baby step, and one of the things it tells us is that we don’t know enough about these brain regions to use them in the ways that we want to.”
Bruneau is now testing whether these brain regions send messages to different parts of the brain depending on whether the person is feeling empathy or not.
It could be that when someone reads about the suffering of an in-group member, the brain regions identified in this study send information to areas that process unpleasant emotions, while stories about suffering of a conflict-group member activate an area called the ventral striatum, which has been implicated in schadenfreude — taking pleasure in the suffering of others.