Children are naturally prone to be empathic and moral

July 11, 2008,
When a child is shown a photo of someone accidently hurting himself, portions of the brain are activated which are related to pain. Credit: University of Chicago

Children between the ages of seven and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, who used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study responses in children.

The responses on the scans were similar to those found in studies of adults. Researchers found that children, like adults, show responses to pain in the same areas of their brains. The research also found additional aspects of the brain activated in children, when youngsters saw another person intentionally hurt by another individual.

"This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else," said Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, who reported the findings in the article, "Who Caused the Pain? An fMRI Investigation of Empathy and Intentionality in Children," published in the currrent issue of Neuropsychologia. Joining him as co-authors were University students Kalina Michalska and Yuko Aktsuki.

The programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing, said Decety. Understanding the brain's role in responding to pain can help researchers understand how brain impairments influence anti-social behavior, such as bullying, he explained.

For their research, the team showed 17 typically developed children, ages seven to 12, animated photos of people experiencing pain, either received accidentally or inflicted intentionally. The group included nine girls and eight boys.

While undergoing fMRI scans, children where shown animations using three photographs of two people whose right hands or right feet only were visible.

The photographs showed people in pain accidently caused, such as when a heavy bowl was dropped on their hands, and situations in which the people were hurt, such as when a person stepped intentionally on someone's foot. They were also shown pictures without pain and animations in which people helped someone alleviate pain.

The scans showed that the parts of the brain activated when adults see pain were also triggered in children.

"Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people in pain in children was associated with increased hemodymamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of first-hand experience of pain, including the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray and supplementary motor area," Decety wrote.

However, when the children saw animations of someone intentionally hurt, the regions of the brain engaged in social interaction and moral reasoning (the temporo-parietal junction, the paracigulate, orital medial frontal cortices and amygdala) also were activated.

The study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, provides new insights for children between childrens' perceptions of right and wrong and how their brains process information, Decety said. "Although our study did not tap into explicit moral judgment, perceiving an individual intentionally harming another person is likely to elicit the awareness of moral wrongdoing in the observer," he wrote.

Subsequent interviews with the children showed they were aware of wrong-doing in the animations in which someone was hurt. "Thirteen of the children thought that the situations were unfair, and they asked about the reason that could explain this behavior," Decety said.

Source: University of Chicago

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12 comments

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nilbud
2 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2008
What degeneration of the brain then allows them to call Abu Ghraib atrocities "hazing" or "letting off steam". Does being a republican physically effect the brain, or are these people born brain damaged?
superhuman
3 / 5 (4) Jul 11, 2008
>Children are naturally prone to be empathic and moral

No, they are naturally prone to avoid pain and learn from other's mistakes. fMRI results have no relevance to morality whatsoever.

>"Thirteen of the children thought that the situations were unfair, and they asked about the reason that could explain this behavior,"

They were taught that such situations were "unfair" of course.

>... how brain impairments influence anti-social behavior, such as bullying...

Like it or not bullying is in human nature, its the way kids practice establishing of social hierarchy. This instinct can be found in every boy and it originates in times where physical strength was the most important measure of social value of males whose role was to protect the group and hunt for food.
Mercury_01
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2008
Bullying is not human nature, its learned. Folks like superman cant get past thier problems and pass them onto their innocent kids who use the pain of their fathers as a weapon against vulnerability.
Ever notice how certain assholes seem to think that everybody is as confused and bitter as they are? Its only because they cant deal with themselves, and so every criticism that they offer is only a reflection of themselves.
Human nature is not to establish a social hierarchy based on physical intimidation, thats merely a vestige of our primitive brain, and the crutch of a feeble mind. True human nature is far more evolved. Thats why your kids will grow up to be just fine as long as you keep your petty fears and inadiquacies out of their innocent minds. If you cant do that, and you think its normal for human society to follow the ways of our ape ancestors, then your probably a fucking meathead, or you have issues with your alchoholic father, and you have no business raising children.
am_Unition
5 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2008
This is the classic question of whether the established civilization helps or hurts morality/ethics.

For example, take Golding's "Lord of the Flies", where the boys become savage without civilization.

Like Mercury_01, I personally subscribe to the view that civilization is in no way necessary, and that humans are naturally hardwired for empathy and morals. Couldn't this be construed as an evolutionary strategy?
Mercury_01
not rated yet Jul 11, 2008
As I recall, The children in "lord of the flies" were a part of a societal institution before being stranded, and thier behavior was obviously a direct result of this. I think thats a classic example.
superhuman
not rated yet Jul 12, 2008
I never said bullying is good or that it should be tolerated I just pointed out that it has nothing to do with "brain impairment" as the article suggests.

Violence, greed, abuse are all part of human nature, we are much closer to our savage ancestors then many people like to admit.


As I recall, The children in "lord of the flies" were a part of a societal institution before being stranded, and thier behavior was obviously a direct result of this. I think thats a classic example.


You see it all backwards, societal institutions, especially the law, are what makes humans civilized. Although there are some who would police themselves even in the absence of law, there are also hordes who revert to their violent primal instincts - plundering, raping and killing - the moment they know society wont be able to get back at them. They are humans also and their actions prove that human nature is not as evolved as we would like it to be.
nilbud
not rated yet Jul 12, 2008
That is a stupid way to look at things, a typical us and them, fear filled notion of apartheid. Even the silly terms used such as "get back at" indicate a frightened and frightening worldview. All about control and retribution and then calling it "natural". That's the way cancer cells behave not humans.
Mercury_01
5 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2008
I see that too, nilbud. The only reason one would behave that way is if hed been hurt by a society that diddnt pay any attention to his humanity.

Humans simply were not evolved to live in large societies. We are best suited to live in small groups of around 50 or less, where each persons natural talents and individuality can be realized while each person can still keep close the mind of the group as a whole. Mainstream society has created conditions in our species that foster cancerous mindsets

Its true that we are not as evolved as we would like to be, but only because many of us just accept an incorrect path as an inevitable part of our nature.
superhuman
not rated yet Jul 12, 2008
That is a stupid way to look at things, a typical us and them, fear filled notion of apartheid. Even the silly terms used such as "get back at" indicate a frightened and frightening worldview. All about control and retribution and then calling it "natural". That's the way cancer cells behave not humans.


Yes the view that we are all good and moral is so much more enlightened... Only those who were hurt in childhood are violent and they were hurt by those who were themselves hurt and so on, ad infinitum... although such thinking may be convenient and politically correct I'm afraid it doesn't work that way.

Humans are a product of evolution and the only thing that matters in evolution is reproductive success - both of individuals, groups and of species as a whole.

Take a look at animal kingdoms and you will see that many viable reproductive strategies evolved - some involve tightly knit groups (akin to peaceful human societies) and some involve bloody confrontations over sexual partners and violently forcing partners into submission (similar to what happens during human wars when law is not uphold) there are even more extreme cases in animal kingdom like killing partners after using them or producing infertile slaves, luckily those are not represented in humans.

Observation of animals of which we are direct descendants proves that violence is not due to being hurt by a society, it is our inborn nature deeply rooted in our evolutionary heritage.

Violence is one way to ensure individual's reproductive success, yet since it is detrimental to the society as a whole the society evolved its own protection, a way to restrain violent individuals - the law.


Its true that we are not as evolved as we would like to be, but only because many of us just accept an incorrect path as an inevitable part of our nature.


Our choices don't influence our evolution, evolution influences which choices are available to us.

The fact that your "incorrect path" is widely available proves it is evolutionary viable and it will stay with us until that changes.
Although we can influence its evolutionary viability (and we try to) it requires immense effort, more effort then we are ready to make.
Simply advocating the "correct" path won't cut it of course as we have to make it inviable for every human being and it can only be done by considerable force - we would have limit the ability of violent individuals to pass their genes to future generations.
tachyx
not rated yet Jul 13, 2008
There is a spelling mistake in the article. It says midcigular instead of midcingular. This error is perpetuated on 91 sites on Google and noticed by no one because no one cares what these specific areas of the brain signify with regards to the claims made in the article.

The article is talking about physical pain, pain registered in the touch centers of the brain. It says absolutely nothing about emotional pain.

I would be very interested in research showing people being humiliated, manipulated, and emotionally coerced and see which areas of the brain those actions affect.

As for bullying (including by politically conservative leaning and religious types), this requires understanding the use of both physical pain and emotional manipulation (scarring).

I would presume that the periaqueductal gray is overactive in bullies, which highly suppresses their perception of pain and amplifies the need to defend *themselves* when they hurt others.

Mercury_01
not rated yet Jul 13, 2008
perhaps some are more genetically inclined to violence than others, But I do firmly believe that our choices do effect our evolution as a species. Ive been preaching this for years. We have created a world for ourselves in which we have no environmental stressors to provoke further evolution. However, we've only succeeded in causing total mental chaos. Our next evolution will take place in the mind. We have a collective mind, and that mind is always changing. one of its purposes is to overcome our animalistic tendencies.
Mercury_01
not rated yet Jul 14, 2008
Just because you cant quantify something doesnt mean it does not exist. What do you know of the collective mind? Nothing. If you dont have enough intuition to see things outside your normal view, youll be forever stuck with that scientific method of yours. Youre only using half of your brain!

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