July 13, 2008
Children Show Empathy On Brain Scans

University of Chicago researchers find that while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans children 7 to 12 show similar patterns of brain activity to adults when watching animated videos of people experiencing pain.

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.

Suppose this sort of scanning was carried out with a much larger group of children. Would some small fraction of them show deficiencies in their reaction to seeing others suffer pain?

What I'd like to see: Do brain scans on a few hundred children to measure their empathy and other forms of reaction and then follow the children as they grow up and enter adulthood. Can future psychopaths or criminals be identified via brain scans?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 July 13 10:49 PM  Brain Ethics Law

HellKaiserRyo said at July 13, 2008 10:57 PM:

I wonder if liberals are more likely to be empathetic since they have a higher aversion to harm according to Jonathan Haidt.

rsilvetz said at July 14, 2008 7:32 AM:

Not sure about criminals. Criminality seems to actually be a matter of choice.

Pyschopaths is a more interesting case. Clearly emotional detachments and inverted pleasure-pain axis should show up in an fMRI as abnormal patterns vis-a-vis the majority. What to do is a more difficult proposition. If fMRI clocks in at 95%+ predictive value you could make a case for surveillance, DNA collection, etc and other draconian measures. But what if sensitivity and specificity are not high? What if it detects only 1-in-3? Do we still condemn 2-in-3 to the stigma of being a potential serial killer?

Nick G said at July 14, 2008 10:25 AM:

Good questions re psychopaths - seems like an important area for research, especially for cures!

Again with the researchers being surprised by brain activity? What do they assume we think with???

"The programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children"

It seems to me that researchers are still unconsciously in the grip of the old mind-body dualism.

Why else would they be surprised to find a correlation between a physical phenomenon (activity in the brain) and the experience of chronic anxiety? Why would they jump to conclusions about genetic sources of empathy, just because they've identified a physical phenomenon in the body?

It's as if they still think there's a ghost in the machine.

Randall Parker said at July 14, 2008 8:40 PM:


The liberals unfortunately do not understand the line delivered by Nick Lowe: "You gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure".

HellKaiserRyo said at July 14, 2008 11:26 PM:

I do agree... I do not believe in being cruel to persons (conflicts with my "negative utiliarianism"), but I do believe that we should ruthlessly discard unworthy embryos. Unlike most Catholics, I am not afraid to causually discard them.

When I read Richard Lynn's Eugenics, I finally realized that the "sanctity of life" doctrine is flawed and holding humanity back. But unlike most conservatives, I cannot allow eugenic enhancement of eugenics to be left the the market. This is too important for that as I see eugenics as a moral imperative.

Well, Charles Murray did predict that the left will embrace eugenics again for similar reasons.

HellKaiserRyo said at July 14, 2008 11:29 PM:

I meant to say "eugenic enhancement of intelligence"

averros said at July 15, 2008 2:01 AM:

Reality check - before believing the junk which they now call "science".

fMRI measures blood supply in specific regions of brain, with pretty crude resolution, which roughly correspond to the level of neuron activity within these regions, at a frequncy of about 2 seconds between scans.

Measuring activity of these is pretty much similar to making guesses of what computer does by measuring its power consumption once an hour. In some very limited cases it helps (when you have nanosecond-level temporal resolution you can use supply current as a side channel in some poorly implemented crypto chips), but by and large it says next to nothing.

So what we know is that some regions of the brain get more active in some contexts - but it doesn't tell anything about what these regions *do*. (In fact, fMRI mostly measures activity on inputs, rather than processing or output).

The only method so far which actually establishes linkage of functions to specific regions is brain damage studies - when damage in some specific region actually disrupts some function in a specific way, then we can tell that this region contributes to that function. When something lights up on fMRI that may mean that this is place where this function resides, or it can mean that this is a place where *inhibitory* mechanism for this function resides, or the place which is triggered by hormonal changes associated with dealing with this function, or something totally unrelated which gets activated as a side effect with no input to the function whatsoever, or something triggered by seeing doctors doing the test for that function, etc, etc, etc.

Oh... and testing a group of only 17 subjects doesn't really allow to make any general conclusions about normal humans.

Nick G said at July 15, 2008 1:29 PM:

Yeah, it's astonishing how little we know about how the brain works. Can you believe we're still using ECT? Would you try to fix a computer by applying random electric shocks???

philw1776 said at July 16, 2008 2:32 PM:

I'll admit to having banged on a recalcitrant computer. And I are a computer engineer.

sow said at July 17, 2008 12:20 AM:

Oh:( how does the children can understand about the parts of the brain activity.

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