When the brain activates the network of neurons involved in empathising, it suppresses the network used for cold, hard analysis.
The reverse is also true: activating the brain’s analytical networks reduces the ability to empathise.
These conclusions come from a study published in the journal Neuroimage, which is the first to find that we are constrained in our ability to be analytical and empathetic at the same time (Jack et al., 2012).
Dr. Anthony Jack, the study’s first author, said:
“What we see in this study is […] neural inhibition between the entire brain network we use to socially, emotionally and morally engage with others, and the entire network we use for scientific, mathematical and logical reasoning.
“This shows scientific accounts really do leave something out — the human touch.
A major challenge for the science of the mind is how we can better translate between the cold and distant mechanical descriptions that neuroscience produces, and the emotionally engaged intuitive understanding which allows us to relate to one another as people.”
In the study, 45 college students were given a series of problems to think about which either involved physics or considering the feelings of others.
Brain scans revealed that the physics problems activated the analytical brain network and suppressed the empathetic network.
The reverse happened when people were asked to engage their empathy.
Dr. Jack said:
“When subjects are lying in a scanner with nothing to do, which we call the resting state, they naturally cycle between the two networks.
This tells us that it’s the structure of the adult brain that is driving this, that it’s a physiological constraint on cognition.”
Relying too much on one network or the other can be detrimental, Dr. Jack said:
“You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business.
But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking.”
You’ll never get by without both networks.
You don’t want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Mutiara Karina