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Brain circuits for empathy, violence may overlap

April 18, 2010
Courtesy SINC
and World Science staff

Hu­man brain cir­cuits in­volved in em­pa­thy and in vi­o­lence may over­lap, sci­en­tists have found. They say the dis­cov­ery might help ex­plain why peo­ple are both un­usu­ally kind and ab­nor­mally vi­cious com­pared to most oth­er an­i­mals.

The con­clu­sions are based a re­view of past re­search on the sub­ject, an over­view sum­ma­rized in a pa­per pub­lished in the Feb­ru­ary is­sue of the Spanish-language re­search jour­nal Re­vista de Neu­rología. The work was car­ried out by Lu­is Moya Al­biol of the Uni­vers­ity of Va­len­cia in Spain and col­leagues.

“Just as our spe­cies could be con­sid­ered the most vi­o­lent, since we are ca­pa­ble of se­ri­al killings, gen­o­cide and oth­er atro­ci­ties, we are al­so the most em­pa­thet­ic spe­cies,” Moya Al­biol told a Spanish-government spon­sored sci­ence news agen­cy and web­site, the Sci­ence In­forma­t­ion and News Serv­ice.

The study con­cludes that brain struc­tures known as the pre­fron­tal and tem­po­ral cor­tex, the amyg­da­la and oth­er fea­tures of the so-limbic sys­tem, be­lieved to be in­volved in emo­tion, play “a fun­da­men­tal role in all situa­t­ions in which em­pa­thy ap­pears.”

Newer tech­niques for meas­ur­ing the hu­man brain while it is ac­tively work­ing, such as a scan­ning meth­od called func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing or fMRI, are shed­ding light on struc­tures gov­ern­ing be­hav­ior and psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­cesses, Moya Al­biol not­ed. fMRI meas­ures which brain ar­eas are most ac­tive at any giv­en time by meas­ur­ing blood flow to dif­fer­ent re­gions, us­ing ra­di­o waves and a strong mag­net­ic field.

Such stud­ies in­di­cate that the em­pa­thy-related parts of the brain over­lap “in a sur­pris­ing way” with those that reg­u­late ag­gres­sion and vi­o­lence, said Moya Al­biol, the stu­dy’s lead au­thor, ac­cord­ing to the news serv­ice. “We all know that en­cour­ag­ing em­pa­thy has an in­hibit­ing ef­fect on vi­o­lence. But this may not only be a so­cial ques­tion but al­so a bi­o­log­i­cal one—s­timula­t­ion of these neu­ronal [brain cell] cir­cuits in one di­rec­tion re­duces their ac­ti­vity in the oth­er.”

This means it is hard for a “more em­pa­thet­ic” brain to be­have vi­o­lently, at least on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, Moya Al­biol con­tin­ued. “E­d­u­cat­ing peo­ple to be em­pa­thet­ic could be an educa­t­ion for peace, bring­ing about a re­duc­tion in con­flict and bel­lig­er­ent acts.”


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Human brain circuits involved in empathy and in violence may overlap, scientists have found. They say the discovery might help explain why people are both unusually kind and abnormally vicious compared to most other animals. The conclusions are based a review of past research on the subject, an overview summarized in a paper published in the February issue of the Spanish-language research journal Revista de Neurología. The work was carried out by Luis Moya Albiol of the University of Valencia in Spain and colleagues. “Just as our species could be considered the most violent, since we are capable of serial killings, genocide and other atrocities, we are also the most empathetic species,” Moya Albiol told a Spanish-government sponsored science news agency and website, the Science Information and News Service. The study concludes that brain structures known as the prefrontal and temporal cortex, the amygdala and other features of the so-limbic system, believed to be involved in emotion, play “a fundamental role in all situations in which empathy appears.” Newer techniques for measuring the human brain while it is actively working, such as a scanning method called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, are shedding light on brain structures governing behaviour and psychological processes, Moya Albiol noted. fMRI measures which brain areas are most active at any given time by measuring blood flow to different regions, using radio waves and a strong magnetic field. Such studies indicate that the empathy-related parts of the brain overlap “in a surprising way” with those that regulate aggression and violence, said Moya Albiol, the study’s lead author, according to the news service. “We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on violence. But this may not only be a social question but also a biological one—stimulation of these neuronal [brain cell] circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other.” This means it is difficult for a “more empathetic” brain to behave in a violent way, at least on a regular basis, she continued. “Educating people to be empathetic could be an education for peace, bringing about a reduction in conflict and belligerent acts.”