A USC study recently demonstrated that the regions of the brain most associated with empathizing with pain, as well as reward processing, are more activated when people witness hateful individuals in pain, as opposed to likeable people.
The study, which appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychology this month, gives insight into the complexity of the human brain in relation to social emotions toward enemies as opposed to friends.
Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Glenn Fox, a doctoral candidate for neuroscience at USC and Mona Sobhani, a former USC graduate student and current postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University collaborated on the study. The USC Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy funded the research.
In the experiment, Caucasian male Jewish participants became acquainted with stories about eight different people -— four of whom were hateful, anti-Semitic individuals and four of whom were tolerant, non-hateful individuals. Elements of these stories were designed based on documentaries and social psychology findings.
After gaining a deeper understanding of the background of each individual, participants were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging as they watched videos of both hateful and likeable individuals in pain. Results showed increased responses in reward processing, emotion regulation in the frontal regions and the “pain matrix,” a network of brain regions associated with experiences of physical pain.
The abstract of the paper suggests that the brain’s heightened activity might be in response to “the threat posed by witnessing the pain of a hateful individual more so than the desire to empathize with a likeable person’s pain.”
According to Fox, the pain is similar to one’s experience watching fictional pain on a telvesion show or a movie.
“We actually think it’s a lot like the process of watching a movie in which the villain is harmed,” Fox said. “At the end of the movie when things are really coming together, you really need to know just how hurt the villain is in order to predict his future behavior. You need to know, is this person going to retaliate? Is he going to be done for or is he going to strike out harder?”
Though the pain matrix is associated with feelings of empathy, the increased level of activity that has been observed might not be attributed to empathy so much as pain processing.
“We don’t think there’s much to do with empathy in this case,” Fox said. “We don’t think that there’s a need to empathize with the villain here. We think it arises more from the need to closely understand the pain of somebody quite frightening.”
The one prediction that the study confirmed was that reward processing was heightened when participants witnessed the suffering of hateful individuals. Combining the expected and the unexpected results, the study showed elevated activity in both the reward system and the pain matrix.
“What it shows is that the brain is really flexible in mapping how it processes other people’s pain and suffering. It shows that these circuits are working in a really interesting way,” Fox said. “At the level of the brain, how we feel about the person can also influence how we understand their pain.”
Michael Lee, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry, found the study’s results intriguing.
“If someone’s hurting you and you don’t like them, you’re still going to understand that they’re in pain,” Lee said, but he added that he didn’t expect that study participants would feel more awareness of pain for the villain.
Other students, however, disagreed. Stephanie Yi, a junior majoring in psychology, said that the study does make sense, but with conditions.
“I wouldn’t explain it as an empathic emotion. Rather, it seems to be more of a sympathetic urge. Everything is negatively connected instead of positive[ly]” she said. “This is more about surface-level emotions instead of deeper understanding.”
In the future, Fox said that studies will be focused on the emotion regulation aspect and how concentration, consciousness and cognition demands in general stimulate change in brain activity toward others’ pain.
Sobhani expressed optimism for future discoveries as well.
“As we compile [more] of these studies, we can start narrowing down what’s going on in the brain — how these networks are working together, what they work on, when, how much and so on,” she said. “Each study is one little piece of the puzzle. One day, it will be complete. What’s really great about bringing attention to the experiments that go on at the university is that … you never know who it’s going to inspire or what future studies will branch off from it.”
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