Empathy and the generosity it sparks are essential human traits. Although scientists have investigated these behaviours in depth, the neural mechanisms beneath them are still not fully understood. Breaking research gives new clues, reports Medical News Today
Humans are complex animals living in a complex environment. Every day, our brain makes thousands of decisions, helping us navigate social challenges.
Sometimes we do things to benefit ourselves; other times, we decide to act in a way that benefits others.
Humans evolved to be social animals, and, in social groups, people who only look after themselves cannot thrive within the group. An individual needs to act in a way that allows them to survive, of course, but there also needs to be generosity.
Being generous involves an understanding of the other person’s needs; this takes empathy – an ability to put one’s self in another’s shoes.
Showing empathy and acting upon it is an essential part of being human.
“Nowhere is this empathy more imperative and needed than in medical complaints organisations, where harm may have already occurred and the subject matter is rooted firmly in human emotion”. Carolyn Cleveland firstname.lastname@example.org
Understanding pro-social behaviour
Recently, researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom decided to add to the current understanding of so-called pro-social behaviours and investigate the neurological origin of empathy and generosity.
Dr. Patricia Lockwood published her work this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Although people have a remarkable inclination to engage in pro-social behaviours, there are substantial differences between individuals.
Empathy, the capacity to vicariously experience and understand another person’s feelings has been put forward as a critical motivator of pro-social behaviours, but we wanted to test why and how they might be linked.” Dr. Patricia Lockwood
To study this human trait, the researchers scanned participants using an MRI machine while they carried out tasks. The specific tasks were based on well-used models that test how people learn to benefit themselves. Participants had to work out which symbols they needed to press to bring themselves the biggest reward.
As a twist to the classic experiment, the participants also had to learn which symbols were more likely to give someone else a reward.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results showed that people learned to benefit themselves quicker than they learned to help others. Additionally, using the MRI scanner, the team pinpointed the region of the brain that was activated when carrying out actions that helped other people.
The subgenual anterior cingulate cortex
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is an area of the brain known to be involved in the control of a number of automatic processes, such as the regulation of blood pressure and heart rate. It is also thought to be important in higher level functions, including reward anticipation, impulse control, decision-making, and emotion.
When the participants were learning how to help others, a specific part of the ACC was activated called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC); this region was the only area to light up on brain scans, and it was not triggered while learning actions which favoured the individual.
This implies that the sgACC is particularly tuned to controlling and monitoring generosity.
Interestingly, the team also found that the sgACC was not equally active in each of the scanned brains. Those who self-reported higher levels of empathy had higher activation levels, whereas individuals who did not activate it so readily, rated themselves as less empathic.
Although previous studies have highlighted certain, overlapping areas of the brain involved in empathy and pro-social behaviour, this study adds a new level of specificity.
“This the first time anyone has shown a particular brain process for learning pro-social behaviours – and a possible link from empathy to learning to help others”. Dr. Patricia Lockwood
Original Source: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/312349.php
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