3 for Thursday: 3 Scientific Studies on Empathy

Studies and researchMuch of what counts for a success in dialogue, whether it is in the family or in diplomatic relations, hinges upon the ability to empathize. One might be able to reach a temporary resolution, but it will be short-lived if those doing the negotiating can’t put themselves in the shoes of others. But what drives empathy? Why is it that some people are highly empathetic, while others can only look out for their own interests? Is there a connection to religion? Can one be empathetic and analytical at the same time? Below are three studies that look at empathy and attempt to figure out just what drives it.

1) The faces of empathy
The blog, Epiphenom, takes a look at a study of empathy tied to the idea of pareidolia (the ability of humans to see patterns and images where they are not). This ability varies from person to person, so a study done at the University of Helsinki wondered if it might be connected to paranormal and religious beliefs. They discovered that “believers were more likely to see faces overall – even in pictures where independent raters had concluded there were none!” According to the study, researchers believe that this might be related to “perception and empathy” and the “capacity to recognize and understand human beings.” Read more about it at Epiphenom.

2) The empathy center of the brain
Another study by international researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (NY) demonstrates that the area of the brain responsible for empathy is the anterior insular cortex. Patients who had brain lesions caused by the removal of tumors in the anterior insular cortex had trouble recognizing photos of people in pain. “The research team found that patients with damage restricted to the anterior insular cortex had deficits in explicit and implicit empathetic pain processing.” They have also concluded that this has ramifications for certain neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as autism and dementia. Read the more about the study at Science Daily.

3) Either empathetic or analytical, but not both simultaneously
According to new research, “we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at the same time.” Research published in the journal NeuroImage shows that “adults presented with social or analytical problems — all external stimuli — consistently engaged the appropriate neural pathway to solve the problem, while repressing the other pathway.” The ramifications are broad, including the autistic and the CEO. A CEO needs to be analytical, says the researchers, but if that isn’t tempered “you can lose your moral compass.” Read more about the study at Science Daily.

So what kind of person are you, empathetic or analytical? Don’t care? I think they call that apathetic.

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