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The neuroscience of empathy

Luis Dias

“As a species, why are we willing to kill, exploit, or willfully disregard people we’ve never met?” This question leapt out of my laptop screen just as I was winding down and
calling it a night.

It struck a chord. It is a question, perhaps differently phrased, that troubles me a lot, and I’m sure I’m not alone: How and why are we capable of treating others cruelly, of dehumanising a person or a group of people?

The article, in The Economist, was titled ‘Does your brain care about other people? It depends’, co-written by David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Stanford University and author of several books on cognition and society; and Don Vaughn, neuroscientist at the University of California Los Angeles.

It begins with the story of Lord George Gordon (1751-1793), British nobleman and politician, who fought against the injustice meted out to sailors in the Royal Navy at the time, and against the evils of slavery on the one hand; but was also responsible for instigating several days of anti-Catholic riots (known even today infamously as the ‘Gordon riots’) in 1780. Gordon marched a 50,000-strong mob to the Houses of Parliament that went on over a whole week to destroy Roman Catholic churches and pillage Catholic homes, killing or wounding hundreds of people in what has gone down as “the most destructive domestic upheaval in the history of London”.

This, then is the conundrum: how can someone have empathy for one group or groups of people, but simultaneously harbour antipathy towards

The writers put it down to a “fundamental fact of human nature: our tendency to form ingroups and outgroups—that is, groups that we feel attached to and those that we don’t”. Yes, we have empathy, but it is selective. Eagleman and Vaughn cite examples such as “a hometown, a school or a religion” bonding people within an ingroup. In India, the big “bond” would also have to be caste.

The Second World War had brought into sharp focus how dangerous such divisions into ingroups and outgroups could be, with the dehumanisation of Jews by the Nazis, and American wartime propaganda portraying the Japanese as ‘subhuman’, while Japanese propaganda depicted Americans as ‘monsters’.

The authors describe a 1954 psychological study dividing a study sample of pre-teen boys into arbitrary groups, and the antagonism and partisanship sometimes erupting into violence that resulted from this random division.

This is not an isolated study. It has been replicated at different times in different places in different age-groups. I remember reading about a similar study from about a decade later. The day after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in April 1968, class-teacher Jane Elliott in a small all-white town of Riceville Iowa decided to teach her third-graders a lesson in the meaning of discrimination when she realised that they “couldn’t understand” why someone should even want to murder an icon that they had recently made “Hero of the Month”.

She divided her class by eye colour: those with blue and those with brown eyes. On the first day, one group was told they were “smarter, nicer, neater, and better” than the other group. The “better” group were given privileges such a longer recess, and being first in cafeteria lunch line. The other group had to wear a collar around their neck and their behaviour and performance were criticised and ridiculed by Elliott.

The next day, the tables were turned, and the other group became the dominant group. In each case, the “superior” group became mean-spirit and took pleasure in the discrimination against the other group.

Realising that she had created “a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom”, Elliott repeated the exercise for two consecutive years after that. Fourteen years later, Frontline’s ‘A Class Divided’ documented a reunion of the last, 1970 third-grade class, who still remembered and cherished the lessons from that experiment.

Eagleman and Vaughn relate the results of a rather bizarre experiment carried out in 2010. Scientists at the University of Zurich recruited sports fans for a brain imaging study. The fans were first allowed to meet and exchange trivia. They then underwent a brain scan during which they watched other fans receiving painful electric shocks to their hands. Watching the pain inflicted on others activated parts of the brain as if they were experiencing it themselves. “This is the neural basis of empathy,” the writers explain.

But there was a darker side to the interpretation of the data. Participants experienced higher brain activity when watching the pain experienced by those who liked the same sports team they did, and less activity when watching pain inflicted to fans of a rival team!

To remove the bias from the sports fans recognising each other, Eagleman and Vaughn designed another study: “Participants lay in an MRI scanner and looked at six hands on a video screen. The computer selected one hand at random, and then a hypodermic needle entered the picture and stabbed into the flesh of that hand. In a control condition, a long cotton swab touched the person’s hand—visually similar to the needle, but this time with no pain.” By contrasting the brain’s reaction to the needle and the cotton swab, the researchers felt they could measure the brain networks that became active when witnessing another’s pain.

Then came the twist: “Each hand became marked with a simple label: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Scientologist or atheist.” The question they wished to answer was: would a participant experience more pain if h/she belonged to the ‘label’ hand being stabbed? Would a Christian feel more pain on watching pain inflicted to a ‘Christian’ hand?

That was indeed their conclusion. “Watching an ingroup hand get stabbed evoked more empathic brain activity; an outgroup hand triggered less”, despite all the protestations of neutrality on the part of some participants.

The authors ask us to reflect: “Take a moment to think about your own level of empathy toward others. Imagine that you see a 60-year-old man twist his ankle and fall to the ground. Do you feel an empathic sting? Now imagine he’s at a rally for a politician that you loathe. Is your empathy any different? And if so, does that challenge your view of yourself as an empathic person? If you had unequal responses in the two situations, you’re not alone: people generally assess their own empathy by thinking about those in their ingroup.”

I thought the same thing when pictures of the horrific blaze of the Tezgam passenger train travelling between Karachi and Rawalpindi, killing at least 75, appeared on social media. The ‘ha-ha’ emoticon reaction from tens of thousands of people (while many more reacted with concern, to be sure) was mind-numbing. How could anyone trivialise a tragedy like this, wherever it may have occurred, and regardless of who the unfortunate victims were?

Eagleman and Vaughn suggest that rather than feeling doomed to succumb to our ingrained biases, we can fight them through several strategies such as understanding our own biases; building a better model of others; and learning to resist the tactics of dehumanisation.

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