Monday, November 25, 2013

The Empathy Zone

Empathy. I can’t help but think of Blade Runner whenever the word enters my orbit, and in this instance it’s quite an apt reference. A team of European researchers devised a test to identify the part of the brain that deals with our empathetic response. In particular, they wanted to know why we often find it hard to grasp why someone else isn’t on the same emotional plain we are. Then they wanted to see if they could dial empathy up and down. And they could.

It turns out there’s a part of our brain – the right supramarginal gyrus (rSMG for short), located near the middle of the brain – that showed a spike of activity when test subjects were off kilter with each other. They just had to work out whether that spike was trying to encourage us to be more empathetic, or acting as a road-block. It turned out to be the former.

For some reason, test subjects seem quite happy to have magnetic stimulus performed on their brains. Thanks to their confidence in modern science, the researchers were able to reduce the rSMG activity and find that their subjects showed less empathy when doing the tests. Our brains are actually trying to help us be more empathetic. Hopefully this research goes towards finding ways to improve our empathy levels. The last thing we need is a mad scientist who devises a way to shut the rSMG reaction down. Without it, we’re not human.

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