Thursday, 20 April 2017
The existence of empathy and altruistic behaviour among various species of animals has been amply demonstrated. Among elephants, examples include comforting members of the herd who are frightened, rescuing others when they get get stuck in mud holes, and adopting orphaned babies. Chimpanzees and bonobos display sophisticated altruistic behaviours in dealing with weak or disabled members of their troops, trying to help them stand, bringing them food, and covering them with vegetation after confirming that they have died.
The human species is no exception. We human beings depend so much on one another and our societies are so complex that our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they are feeling and to act accordingly, is quite obvious. Ethologists and evolutionary biologists agree that in species that form complex societies in which cooperation and mutual assistance constitute an advantage for the entire group, empathy developed naturally.
But there’s no denying that some people are more empathetic than others, which raises the question: can empathy be learned? Considering all the suffering and conflict caused by lack of empathy, this is no trivial question. Happily, several recent studies by cognitive neuroscientists seem to show that the ability to empathize can in fact be acquired.
One such study was published by Grit Hein and her colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in January 2016. Entitled “How learning shapes the empathic brain”, the study’s point of departure was a well known phenomenon: when people observe the suffering of others whom they do not consider part of their own social group, the empathy-related responses of their brain networks are limited. The question that Hein and her colleagues investigated was whether these responses could be increased through a learning process.
In Hein’s study, the subjects had to perform a task in which they received assistance either from members of their own social group or from members of an “out-group”. In the latter case, the subjects displayed a classic signal of learning, known as the “prediction error”, in their anterior cingulate cortex. In effect, when a stranger was kind to the subjects and helped them, things were not going as they had expected, and so their brain was telling them that their basic attitude was erroneous.
Subsequently, the subjects who had undergone this experience displayed greater empathy-related brain responses, not only toward the out-group members who had helped them, but also toward other members of the out-group as a whole. Clearly, these subjects had learned that these other people were basically good folks. Another especially interesting finding of this study was that this generalization of empathy toward other members of the out-group occurred very quickly, after just a few positive interactions in the experiment.
Other studies have looked at empathy-related brain responses when people are reading novels, a solitary activity that at first glance would seem to have little to do with empathy. It turns out that readers’ brains treat the interactions among fictional characters exactly as if they were occurring among real people. Many studies have shown that imagining something activates the same sensory areas of the cortex as actually perceiving it, and reading is just a particular example of this broader phenomenon.
Studies conducted by psychologists such as Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson since 2006 have shown that both male and female readers of fiction seem to be better at understanding other people, at experiencing empathy for them, and at seeing the world from their point of view. In 2010, Mar observed the same pattern in pre-school-age children: the more stories that were read to them, the better able they were to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Lastly, in 2013, Gregory S. Berns and his colleagues explored the neurobiological bases of this phenomenon. Berns’s research team used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to observe the brain connectivity patterns of 21 subjects before, during and after a nine-day period when they all read a novel about the destruction of the city of Pompeii by the volcano Mt. Vesuvius. What the scientists found was an increase in connectivity between two parts of the brain that had previously been shown to be associated with understanding a story and taking another person’s perspective: the left supramarginal angular gyrus and the right posterior temporal gyrus.
So what can we conclude from all this? At the very least, that the next time your kids want to just watch TV or play a video game, you might suggest that instead, they go read a story, or go out and play with some kids from a different social or ethnic group.
Thursday, 23 March 2017
When You Come Into a Room and Forget What You Were Going To Do There
Of all the psychological effects that have been given specific names (the placebo effect, the McGurk effect, the Coolidge effect, etc.), the “doorway effect” is one of the most familiar and yet also one of the most surprising. We have all experienced it: you’re at home, you go from one room into another, and then you forget what you were planning to do there!
As the first article linked to below notes, the French poet Paul Valéry once said that the purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best. In this sense, the doorway effect might be considered a perfect example of the kinds of phenomena that psychologists study. (more…)
Wednesday, 22 February 2017
To Retain Information Better, Wait a Few Hours, Then Go for a Run!
The study that I want to tell you about today was done by Eelco V. van Dongen and his colleagues and is entitled “Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval.”
This study’s findings can be summed up as follows: if you have just made a new mental association and want to remember it better, wait a couple of hours, and then go do some exercise! In van Dongen’s study, three groups of subjects performed a memory-encoding task. One group performed exercise immediately after, one did so four hours after, and the third did not perform any exercise at all. When the three groups were tested for their retention of the encoded memory two days afterward, the group that had exercised four hours after the task showed the best retention among the three groups. (more…)
Friday, 10 February 2017
You Don’t Catch a Ball by Calculating Its Trajectory, You Catch It by Moving
Today I’d like to talk about a problem that is a classic both for baseball players and for cognitive scientists. And the way that baseball players solve it has helped cognitive scientists to better understand the important role that the body plays in cognition.
The problem is as follows: how does a baseball player go about catching a baseball that has been hit high into the air, especially when the player is in centre field and the ball is following a long, parabolic trajectory that would otherwise cause it to land several metres from where the player is standing? How does the player go about calculating this trajectory and moving, in just a few seconds, to the right place to catch the ball? This is what has long been known in English as “the outfielder problem.” (If you’re more of a soccer fan, imagine a backfielder successfully heading a long throw-in by the goalkeeper.) (more…)
Monday, 9 January 2017
A First Brain-Imaging Study on the Effects of LSD
“This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics.”
This eye-catching remark comes from neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, and he is talking about a study on which he was the senior researcher: “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging”, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2016. And like the results of the research on the Higgs boson, the results of Nutt’s study confirmed the theory—in this case, that the observed changes in brain activity would provide a very good picture of the mental state produced by an “acid trip”. (more…)