Surprising study shows that brains process the pain of villains more than the pain of people we like

October 16, 2013

Counterintuitive findings from a new USC study show that the part of the brain that is associated with empathizing with the pain of others is activated more strongly by watching the suffering of hateful people as opposed to likable people.

While one might assume that we would empathize more with people we like, the study may indicate that the human brain focuses more greatly on the need to monitor enemies closely, especially when they are suffering.

"When you watch an action movie and the bad guy appears to be defeated, the moment of his demise draws our focus intensely," said Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the Brain and Creativity Institute of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "We watch him closely to see whether he's really down for the count, because it's critical for predicting his potential for retribution in the future."

Aziz-Zadeh, who has a joint appointment with the USC Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, collaborated with lead author Glenn Fox, a PhD candidate at USC; and Mona Sobhani, formerly a grad student at USC and who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University, on a study that appears in Frontiers in Psychology this month.

The study examined activity in the so-called "pain matrix" of the brain, a network that includes the insula cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the somatosensory cortices – regions known to activate when an individual watches another person suffer.

The pain matrix is thought to be a related to empathy – allowing us to understand another's pain. However, this study indicates that the pain matrix may be more involved in processing pain in general, and not necessarily tied to empathic processing.

Participants—all of them white, male, and Jewish—first watched videos of hateful, anti-Semitic individuals in pain and then other videos of tolerant, non-hateful individuals in pain. Their brains were scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to show activity levels in the pain matrix.

Surprisingly, the participants' pain matrices were more activated by watching the anti-Semites suffer compared to the tolerant individuals.

"The results further revealed the brain's flexibility in processing complex social situations." said Fox. "The brain uses the complete context of the situation to mount an appropriate response. In this case, the brain's response is likely tied to the relative increase in the need to attend to and understand the of the hateful person."

A possible next step for the researchers will be to try to understand how regulating one's emotional reaction to stimuli such as these alters the resulting patterns of activity.

Explore further: Researchers explore the source of empathy in the brain

More information: www.frontiersin.org/cognitive_science/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00772/abstract

Related Stories

Exercise for stroke patients' brains

June 11, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—A new study finds that stroke patients' brains show strong cortical motor activity when observing others performing physical tasks – a finding that offers new insight into stroke rehabilitation.

A neurological basis for the lack of empathy in psychopaths

September 24, 2013

When individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and be connected to other important regions involved in affective processing ...

Recommended for you

Closing the loop with optogenetics

August 28, 2015

An engineering example of closed-loop control is a simple thermostat used to maintain a steady temperature in the home. Without it, heating or air conditioning would run without reacting to changes in outside conditions, ...

Self-control saps memory, study says

August 26, 2015

You're driving on a busy road and you intend to switch lanes when you suddenly realize that there's a car in your blind spot. You have to put a stop to your lane change—and quickly.

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

foolspoo
1 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2013
how pathetically subjective. its a purely individual basis
RobertKarlStonjek
1 / 5 (2) Oct 17, 2013
I disagree. I think they are confusing empathy with schadenfreude, which requires feeling, and enjoying (rather than feeling empathetic toward) another's pain.
Moebius
1 / 5 (1) Oct 21, 2013
Surprising? Some people are empathic, why would they want to feel the pain of someone they care about more than feeling the pain of someone that they WANT to feel pain?
barakn
not rated yet Oct 21, 2013
Perhaps these researchers never heard of the fMRI performed on a dead salmon? It showed brain activity. http://blogs.scie...n-study/

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.