May 2, 2010

Brain circuits for empathy, violence may overlap

Brain circuits for empathy, violence may overlap

April 18, 2010
Courtesy SINC
and World Science staff
Hu­man brain cir­cuits in­volved in em­pa­thy and in vi­o­lence may over­lap, sci­en­tists have found. They say the dis­cov­ery might help ex­plain why peo­ple are both un­usu­ally kind and ab­nor­mally vi­cious com­pared to most oth­er an­i­mals.

The con­clu­sions are based a re­view of past re­search on the sub­ject, an over­view sum­ma­rized in a pa­per pub­lished in the Feb­ru­ary is­sue of the Spanish-language re­search jour­nal Re­vista de Neu­rologĂ­a. The work was car­ried out by Lu­is Moya Al­biol of the Uni­vers­ity of Va­len­cia in Spain and col­leagues.

“Just as our spe­cies could be con­sid­ered the most vi­o­lent, since we are ca­pa­ble of se­ri­al killings, gen­o­cide and oth­er atro­ci­ties, we are al­so the most em­pa­thet­ic spe­cies,” Moya Al­biol told a Spanish-government spon­sored sci­ence news agen­cy and web­site, the Sci­ence In­forma­t­ion and News Serv­ice.

The study con­cludes that brain struc­tures known as the pre­fron­tal and tem­po­ral cor­tex, the amyg­da­la and oth­er fea­tures of the so-limbic sys­tem, be­lieved to be in­volved in emo­tion, play “a fun­da­men­tal role in all situa­t­ions in which em­pa­thy ap­pears.”

Newer tech­niques for meas­ur­ing the hu­man brain while it is ac­tively work­ing, such as a scan­ning meth­od called func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing or fMRI, are shed­ding light on struc­tures gov­ern­ing be­hav­ior and psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­cesses, Moya Al­biol not­ed. fMRI meas­ures which brain ar­eas are most ac­tive at any giv­en time by meas­ur­ing blood flow to dif­fer­ent re­gions, us­ing ra­di­o waves and a strong mag­net­ic field.

Such stud­ies in­di­cate that the em­pa­thy-related parts of the brain over­lap “in a sur­pris­ing way” with those that reg­u­late ag­gres­sion and vi­o­lence, said Moya Al­biol, the stu­dy’s lead au­thor, ac­cord­ing to the news serv­ice. “We all know that en­cour­ag­ing em­pa­thy has an in­hibit­ing ef­fect on vi­o­lence. But this may not only be a so­cial ques­tion but al­so a bi­o­log­i­cal one—s­timula­t­ion of these neu­ronal [brain cell] cir­cuits in one di­rec­tion re­duces their ac­ti­vity in the oth­er.”

This means it is hard for a “more em­pa­thet­ic” brain to be­have vi­o­lently, at least on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, Moya Al­biol con­tin­ued. “E­d­u­cat­ing peo­ple to be em­pa­thet­ic could be an educa­t­ion for peace, bring­ing about a re­duc­tion in con­flict and bel­lig­er­ent acts.”

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