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Looking for Empathy in a Conflict-Ridden World

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I witnessed a breakup yesterday in the middle of MIT’s vast Infinite Corridor—a hallway known for its heavy traffic and long stretch of straightness. Finals are upon the undergraduates, so perhaps tensions were a bit high for the young, failing couple. Something, however, had clearly pushed the girl overboard. Her boyfriend had fallen dramatically to his knees and as he wept heartfelt apologies for some crime or another, the girl stood with crossed arms, trying not to look at him. Then, as I passed, the angry young woman knelt and slapped him hard and loud across his face just before storming off down the Corridor.

I don’t know what happened between those two, but I felt bad for the guy. Seeing him cry so openly in public hurt me, in a small way. And when the slap connected with his wet cheek, the loud clap stung my face in a phantom sort of way. All that insult-to-injury—it hurt.

This, I believe, is empathy (though, as I’ve recently discovered, scientists can’t seem to agree on their own definition). We’ve all "felt" for someone else, whether that person is a stranger getting slapped in public or a close friend suffering through the loss of a pet. The empathy we experience can feel as real as if the pain were our own.

But empathy is failing on a pretty mass scale. It fails between Christians and Muslims. It fails between Israelis and Palestinians. Between Democrats and Republicans. Between Red Sox and Yankees fans. When it comes to conflict groups, empathy largely goes offline.

Because of this failure to empathize, MIT Saxelab neuroscientist Emile Bruneau has set his sights on not only locating empathy in the brain via controversial fMRI scans; he also hopes to find a way to quantify empathy.

Scanning Empathy

The scanning room at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research is small, a bit like a cage. With only a row of computers and a few focused but tired graduate students toiling away on spreadsheets, it’s what I imagine a human terrarium might look like. And on the other side of the room’s single window is a large, round, glowing machine that looks like it could become self-aware at any minute and start sealing out oxygen and talking in a sinister, monotonous voice.

This machine is a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, and Emile Bruneau has signed up for several days’-worth of usage to run his current experiments. His first subject on the day of my visit was a young Israeli woman, dressed all in scrubs. As Bruneau led her into the scanning room to situate her and give instructions on what to do, the graduates back in the terrarium with me typed away on their laptops, presumably getting things ready.

All the subjects that day—all the subjects for this ongoing study—were Israeli and Palestinian volunteers, of random ages (over 18) and sex. One by one they marched into the scanner to get their brains’ pictures taken, each taking about 40 minutes (which, by the way, is a really long time to keep your head still).

The setup is pretty simple. Bruneau’s subjects lie in the fMRI scanner while short, 60-word stories appear before their eyes. The stories tell quick tales of another in emotional or physical pain—nothing too extreme. As a subject reads over the stories, a prompt appears after a few seconds asking her: How much compassion do you feel? She rates from 1 to 5, depending on the intensity of her admitted experience. Images of the subject’s brain (the fMRI measures blood flow, so the more active regions register on the images) are finally sent back to Emile, who watches from his computer.

This isn’t Emile’s first rodeo. He recently ran an almost identical experiment, only instead of limiting his subjects to members of well-known conflict groups, his subjects were random MIT students. The stories and prompts he showed them were identical to those used for the conflict groups, except without any details of the protagonist’s ethnicity. Whereas John, Jerry, or Diane might have been the main character of a prompt in the first, MIT-student run, characters like Ashraf, Fadwa, or Tal took center stage in this more focused round. Bruneau wanted to see whether or not a Palestinian subject would feel less empathy for an Israeli character, and vice versa.

Bruneau discovered with the first experiment what appeared to be concrete anatomical structures in the brain that responded to physical and emotional pain in others. As he monitored the young Israeli woman in the scanner, he pulled up some of the results from his previous experiments to show me what he meant.

"The first thing you can see is that there are distinct brain regions that are responding to these types of stimuli," he said, pointing to rather colorful brain scans (though, he qualified, the results don’t look so appealing straight out of the scanner). There were, in fact, distinct red and green areas on the scans. The regions in red, he said, represented how subjects responded to others in physical pain; the green areas represented their response to emotional suffering.

"The second thing you can see is that they’re completely separate from each other. So the brain regions that are responding to physical pain are very different than the brain regions that are responding to emotional suffering," he trailed off, leaning over a speaker connected to the scanner. The next round of stories are coming up when you’re ready, he told the Israeli woman.

These conflict-rooted empathy experiments haven’t been running too long yet, and he’s yet to dig into the imaging data, but Bruneau has a few expectations, a few questions. For instance, how do members of these conflict groups experience empathy?

"The prediction isn’t that you’ll get a completely different brain response in totally different brain regions," he explained. "The prediction is that you’ll get the same pattern of response, it’ll just be decreased so that there’s less of a response in those brain regions."

In other words, the empathy is there. It’s just on mute.

"One of the strengths of neuroimaging is that you can get a quantitative measure of the activity in different regions, and that’s kind of what we’re relying upon," Bruneau said.

If he succeeds in quantifying empathy, then perhaps, he says, there will finally be a way to measure whether or not conflict resolution programs are working. If a participant in such a program has "greater" empathic activity in his brain after a program, then, obviously, it’s working. If not, adjustments to the program would have to be made.

All in all, Bruneau really hopes to bring a little peace to a conflict-charged world.

But this is a lofty goal, and the methods are not without critics.

Glimpsing the Unglimpsable

Ten years ago, cognitive neuroscience was skeptical about trying to localize any kind of social process in the brain. The endeavor has been likened, by the harshest of critics, to a new wave of phrenology, the pseudoscientific idea that bumps on a skull indicate some kind of "brain map." The skeptics argue that such behaviors and processes, like empathy, can’t be pinpointed to one specific place—the processes emerge, rather, from complex network interactions in the brain.

Bruneau and his supervisor, Rebecca Saxe of Saxelab, both believe that this skepticism has all but died off, and that the whole localization versus network-distribution battle is moot.

"[Localization and distribution] aren’t really alternatives to one another. They might be alternatives to each other in the discourse of the literature, but they’re not alternatives in reality," Saxe responded to the issue. She silences the debate by drawing an analogy to the motor of a car. Sure, an engine works because many pieces work together in unison—in a network, if you will—but that’s not to say a carburetor doesn’t perform a specific job. Saxe emphasizes that this is an oversimplification, but it gets at her basic idea.

Even if localizing specific brain functions is at some point wholly agreed upon as a worthwhile endeavor, fMRI scanning has its critics, too. Perhaps the most colorfully demonstrated argument against the efficacy and reliability of these scanners came about in October 2010. Researchers stuck a dead salmon in an fMRI, asked him questions about human emotions, and measured his response. That is to say, the dead salmon had brain activity show up in his scans. The dead fish had thoughts on human emotion.

Of course, the fish wasn’t responding in any way, shape, or form to his prompts. He was dead. And a fish. This study only served to drive in the point that there are data corrections that must be taken into account for fMRI scans; the results can yield false positives. Regardless, neuroimaging, as some have astutely pointed out, is seductive to researchers, to the people who fund them, and, especially, to the rest of us. After all, it’s nice to see answers to difficult questions simply light up on a screen.

There’s clearly a debate, and probably no end to it in the near future. Matters of the brain are tricky business. I’m no neuroscientist, just a hobbyist, but both sides of the argument seem well-reasoned, well-researched, and well-intending. While it’s exciting to see those brain scans that Bruneau brought up on screen, there’s also something oversimplified about it all.

On the one hand, if he finds significant results, it could lead to groundbreaking methods for palliating some of the world’s problems. On the other hand, it can feel a bit alienating, a bit deflating, to think of one’s brain as simply a series of green and red regions. Then again, reductionism has a tendency for that sort of thing.

Forging Ahead

As I sat in my corner and watched Bruneau conduct his experiment, I saw one of the prompts flash on a screen near the neuroscientist. It read:


Farrah lives with her new husband, who is a bank manager in Baghdad. The couple often has friends over for dinner. One night, as Farrah was chopping vegetables, a friend asked her a question. When Farrah turned to respond and slipped with the knife. The knife cut a huge slice in her finger that went to the bone.

The writer in me should have been paying attention to the way the protagonist was being presented and the ethnically charged rhetoric—using the name Farrah repeatedly, the mention of Baghdad, for instance. Or the way the prompt was crafted to elicit several responses.

Instead, I clenched my teeth and felt a phantom knife slice down to my bone.

I wonder if the subject reacted the same way.

Images Credits: Stephen McCarthy

About the Author: Kristina Bjoran is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, where she writes about technology, environmental studies, and nonhuman animal intelligence. During her down time, she volunteers with animal shelters, writes for nonprofits, and dabbles in photography and skydiving. Follow Kristina on Facebook and Twitter, and visit her page on MIT Scope.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. TTLG 3:55 pm 05/18/2011

    This is exactly the sort of objective measurements needed in the social sciences to bring them up to the level of confidence found in the physical sciences. I am surprised that anyone is actually objecting to this. If anything is needed, it is more control conditions to establish what exactly is causing the particular neural changes. For example, the woman cutting herself while slicing vegetables should be supplemented with things like a story without her cutting herself and about a machine cutting the vegetables. the only problem is that all these other conditions will considerably increase the cost of the research using an expensive piece of equipment like an fMRI scanner.

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  2. 2. KristinaBjoran 6:51 pm 05/18/2011

    @TTLG: Thanks for the comment! I think you’re absolutely right. Seeing the work Emile and Rebecca are doing firsthand, including reading their papers on the subject, this stuff is top-notch.

    As for the stories, you called it (I just didn’t get into it in the story). There were dozens of prompts the subjects would have to read during a trial, and mixed in were many controls. Some stories had a non-conflict-group protagonist (with names like Mary or Juan), and in some stories, nothing of interest happened at all. The injuries were varied, never really graphic, and sometimes nonexistent ("So-and-so walked into a room when a lightbulb burnt out," that kind of "nothing").

    As for the cost, that tension was palpable, as far as Emile was concerned. Lucky for him he’s working with a very wonderful lab and Saxe. But lucky is the wrong word–the guy is brilliant.

    Thanks again for reading!

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  3. 3. wbertrand 9:39 pm 05/18/2011

    I found your article quite intriguing, Kristina. Thanks for that. Discovering the neural correlates of various aspects of consciousness is a fascinating endeavor! Yet, as the salmon story indicates, perhaps the measurement tools aren’t ready for prime time.

    However, I’m particularly interested in how humans can harness the experience of empathy to remedy our conflict-ridden world. As a psychotherapist with a philosophical bent, I’ve always been searching for methods that prove most effective and efficient. Well, I finally encountered an extraordinary one last year (I’m still amazed I hadn’t encountered it sooner), which is called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) founded by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. He has many books about learning this "language of life" that enables humans to accurately identify their feelings and needs, make requests (instead of demands), and resolve conflict by getting their needs met, so that they are able to make each other’s lives more wonderful (rather than less).

    In my opinion, the videos on YouTube of him speaking and using NVC are the most revealing of the efficacy of the process. While I’m all for controlled and blinded studies, seeing is believing in this particular realm. Apparently, SciAm blog is not allowing me to post links, so here are a couple YouTube titles to check out:
    Rosenberg on Nonviolent Communication ~ NVC
    Nonviolent Communication Part 2 Marshall Rosenberg

    The 3-4 hour NVC workshop is very instructive:
    The Basics of Non Violent Communication 1.1

    Basically, as humans learn how to view their feelings and needs in this empathetic, life-enriching way (i.e., without blame, shame, guilt, and moral judgment), they’ll be able to connect with themselves and others in a manner that’s been eluding them much of the time. A culture of people who are fluent in NVC will dissolve the various domination structures and domination (and submission) thinking that currently plague humankind. I’ll be really interested in seeing the research on those brains too!


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  4. 4. denysYeo 11:09 pm 05/18/2011

    Thank you for a very interesting article. We need to remember that empathy is a psychological construct, developed to explain some aspects of human behaviour. It is not necessarily something that has a location in our brain. It is more likely that there is a whole range of brain behaviour around the perception of other people "suffering" this in turn precipitates a range of covert and overt responses. Work such as you describe should help to make a lot more sense of this, and maybe we will end up with more precise terms to allow us to describe how people behave in these situations.

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  5. 5. KristinaBjoran 12:48 am 05/19/2011

    Hi Wes,

    Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you found it intriguing! I’m particularly fascinated in this kind of research, and I think perhaps the debate makes it all the more exciting.

    Also, thanks for sharing the NVC links and info. Now I’m desperate to talk with Emile Bruneau again to get his input on the matter–given his knowledge of conflict resolution, I’m sure he’s aware of NVC. It seems fascinating, if not common sensical in the best of ways. I wonder if these methods can be applied successfully to members of long-standing conflict groups–it seems in such groups, as mentioned above, the empathy is there but tuned way down. I don’t think that’s a choice–rather, a learned response–but it does make things a bit trickier.

    Thanks again for sharing–hopefully this NVC will spread. And maybe Emile will be tackling that sometime soon, too :)

    @ DenysYeo,

    This is where things get really, really murky from what I’ve seen. Empathy is a hot topic all over cognitive psychology, yes, but also in comparative psychology as well. Some are arguing (and I tend to agree) that empathy isn’t simply a human psychological construct, but an evolutionary trait that leads social animals toward adaptability. In other words–to use an obnoxiously oversimplified hypothetical–a chimp that senses when another chimp is angry is more likely to survive successfully in a naturally social setting (in a "Stay away from *that* guy" kind of way). Frans de Waal, ethologist, has looked at empathy in animals in some depth recently, even if the more hard-core objectivity-types brush him off as simply "soft science."

    Of course, the big question we must come back to is "what is empathy"? No one seems to agree on one definition in the science community, as the many definitions (at least 7, I’ve been told) vary in the most nuanced of ways.

    Thanks for reading, by the way! It’s nice to engage in these type of discussions!

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  6. 6. Raghuvanshi1 11:53 am 05/19/2011

    Empathy is relative term,it is arise in particular situation.When we see person suffering if we suffered in past in same situation we can feel their suffering as if is our own.This constitutes our powerful system of empathy which lead to our thinking that we should do something to relieve the suffering of others.If we cannot help another or fail in our efforts we experience feeling of guilt. For that we punish our self.

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  7. 7. wbertrand 8:55 pm 05/19/2011

    Most welcome, Kristina. =) I really hope knowledge of nonviolent communication spreads more too, and Emile is able to incorporate it in his methodology. As the YouTube vids show, Marshall Rosenberg has been using it for decades across the spectrum of human conflict, from loved ones to warring factions. With the latter, he recounts his productive experiences working with groups of Palestinians and Israelis as well as tribes in Africa who had been killing each other as well.

    Here’s a Peace Talks Radio interview of him relating such experiences, among other things:
    w/ Rosenberg (76mins)

    It’s quite true that the experience of empathy is "turned down" in individuals belonging to groups that are at odds with each other. And I’m guessing that it was also greatly muted in the woman of your story who slapped the man. (Perhaps she was feeling a lot of pain and then anger because she was needing honesty and consideration.) The common thread here is the "enemy imagery" that people have toward each other. For instance, "You hurt me!" exemplifies the type of thinking that fosters and solidifies enemy imagery, while it disconnects the person from their actual feelings based on unmet needs in themselves.

    This is why NVC’s focus is on what each side is feeling and needing, rather than on what the other side did or said that allegedly caused the trouble (the blame game can be unending). Here’s a helpful NVC resource that outlines a vocabulary of feelings (notice that the words for the feelings contain no judgment of the other person, such as the quite common "I feel misunderstood" or "I feel disrespected"):
    A link to needs is there as well; as humans, we all have the same needs, and this enables bridges of empathy to be built.

    Roseberg notes that overcoming the enemy imagery is usually the most challenging part of the process. Dissolving our habitual (and unnatural) patterns of judging and blaming of the other (which mutes empathy, including self-empathy) entails identifying and connecting feelings with our unmet needs. Thus, we can generate a flow of compassion. As noted, a great deal of self-empathy is also necessary to this process, which relates to the fact that few if any children really get all their needs met in our culture (such as for empathy and respect), which is filled with domination institutions.

    Best wishes

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  8. 8. LJuno 4:34 pm 05/21/2011

    Hello, I’m going to be a bit blunt here! I’m not particularly impressed by cognitive neuroscientific approaches which attempt to measure ‘empathy’ in relation to the huge hype they generate. People are of course in awe of biofeedback, I mean it’s exciting to see regional activation (following tweaking), but there are so many gaps in 1) defining empathy and 2) creating stimuli to mimic real life scenarios where this construct of ‘empathy’ would/should be activated. The first person to comment seemed to really oversimplify the dilemma – he/she talks about empathy as if it were completely reducible. It made me think about whether we could attempt to quantify the construct of love. Can we attempt to scan couples and use whatever evidence emerges to empirically recognize something which is completely tied to an experience in order to prove it exists and can be neurally localized? I can imagine one day couples lining up for ‘love’ scans before getting married and waving certificates of evidence before ministers, whilst shouting, "it’s emotional, passionate love, not dutiful love. He loves me as activated by X and Y, not Z!". Indeed, this leads me to the next issue – can empathy for pain vs emotional empathy really be localized to distinct brain regions and can findings be generalized? I would think that empathy is a construct that is partially learnt/moulded by a number of culturally specific aspects such as descriptive language used by different communities: thought influences language which in turn influences thought. What if emotional empathy for one community is described much more viscerally than for another, thereby evoking a ‘pain response’ in the related brain region? This is a potential confound.

    So, in conclusion, whilst I am very interested in this form of research, I think that the hype and huge optimism is in large part to attract the attention of funding bodies. I’m unsure about whether cognitive neuroscience is necessarily going to provide giant leaps towards understanding more about empathy, but I’m pretty sure findings will continue to be hyped up to the hilt.

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  9. 9. Ming on Mongo 11:46 am 05/22/2011

    Fascinating article, thanks! And I’m also kinda surprised the "localization" issue is still around, considering there’s no shortage of research now, identifying the specific "locales" of empathy…. in the parietal and premotor cortex that help people understand the simple intentions behind simple gestures, and the medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for interpreting the meaning of those gestures and putting them into context. Not surprisingly, these are also the areas that are found to be damaged or inactive in such notoriously "empathy-challenged" personalities as Narcissists, Sociopaths and Psychopaths.

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  10. 10. KristinaBjoran 3:36 pm 05/22/2011

    Hi again, Wes!

    It’s that "turned down" aspect, I think, that fascinates both me and Emile in these kinds of studies. It makes sense that the girl I witnessed slapping her (presumably)ex-boyfriend likely felt immediately hurt, trampled upon in some way. Those kinds of direct offenses against persons are more tangible; it’s with conflict groups this gets murky. Often times – like with racism and other types of dualistic tensions – these kinds of offenses bud from cultural osmosis. The "enemy imagery" you mention (via Rosenberg) is the toughest thing to get over, undoubtedly. I’m not sure it’s possible through cognitive neuroscience, but it’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor.


    I agree with you 100%–it’s this seductive quality of scanning, of "instant results," if you will, that not only gains public attention, but also funding. From what I’ve seen, there’s also more of a drive to make the causation jump in cognitive fMRI studies, especially for the media. I’m immediately reminded of the allure of attributing specific behaviors and characteristics to one gene ("Scientists have found THE gene for X").

    In general, I find these studies exciting, if not a bit optimistic. When we consider the plasticity of the human brain, it seems the localization idea frays a little at the edges. In some cases, anyway. There are many studies that probably argue in favor of localization in terms of plasticity as well (like Ming on Mongo mentions–when neural damage correlates with certain personality types or changes in behavior).

    Thanks to all for the discussion, by the way!

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  11. 11. Ming on Mongo 4:14 pm 05/22/2011

    Thanks Christina, and BTW, one of the unspoken issues in any discussion of empathy (scientific or otherwise), is that there are actually many of us who simply can’t experience the very thing we’re discussing (aka, empathy)! This may even include the researchers, academics and other reasonably "non-sociopathic" types, who might simply have hi-functioning Asperger’s, and are unable to really grasp either abstraction or the feeling (and the concept) of "empathy". Which can lead to endless debates re: “defining” empathy.

    Incidentally, the consensus seems to be that the pre-frontal cortex is also the "newest" and most recent development, in terms of the brain’s evolution, and has even been suggested as one of several primary differences between modern humans & Neanderthals. Even today, besides helping” conflict resolution", the amount of "empathy" also arguably has huge implications in the culture at large, on everything from our responses to the poor and less fortunate, to health & unemployment, civility, and even our collective standards re: "torture"!

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  12. 12. schnarrd 1:49 pm 05/23/2011

    Nice article. As a budding social scientist, I really appreciate reading good science reporting.

    While the idea of looking inside the brain is indeed exciting, it’s also seductive. I think many psychologists have the sense that if they purport to locate a phenomenon (like empathy) in the brain, they have "explained" it. This has led to a neglect of some very basic measurement issues with fMRI and other neuroscience measures.

    For example, fMRI techniques measure the Blood Oxygen Level-Dependent (BOLD) signal, which in turn is supposed to reflect the change in blood oxygenation within a specific region of interest, which in turn is supposed to reflect neural activity. However, the precise relationship between the BOLD signal and neural activity is, as yet, unknown, as is the timecourse of neural activity and the BOLD signal.

    Of course, the fact that some of the basic measures used in neuroscience are poorly understood leaves the door wide open for scientists to unintentionally fudge their methods to make their results more impressive. Around two years ago, Vul and colleagues published an article in Perspectives on Psychological Science showing that the many of reported correlation between the BOLD signal and self-report measures among published social neuroscience studies exceeded the theoretical maximum correlation based on the average reliabilities of the BOLD signal and most self-report measures. Basically, the impressive correlations reported in many social neuroscience studies are impossibly high.

    Of course, even if a relationship between brain activity and a task is real, it’s hard to say what the relationship means. Have we "located" a phenomenon, such as empathy, in the brain? It’s hard to say when we don’t really understand what the BOLD signal itself actually means.

    In short, fMRI and other neuroscience techniques are potentially useful, but they’re still in their infancy. It’s easy for people (scientists and non-scientists alike) to get carried away when looking at these kinds of results.

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  13. 13. NeuroNatalie 10:44 pm 05/31/2011

    Hello, I wish you the best in your scientific writing career. As someone who has spent three years conducting fMRI research, I have several comments that would increase the quality and accuracy of your reporting on fMRI.

    1) "There were, in fact, distinct red and green areas on the scans. The regions in red, he said, represented how subjects responded to others in physical pain; the green areas represented their response to emotional suffering."

    Comment: images of "red" and "green" are not scientific terms representing any concrete measurements. These are technically regions which in which neural activation (by a very indirect measure) is most likely to not be due to chance.

    2)"Bruneau discovered with the first experiment what appeared to be concrete anatomical structures in the brain that responded to physical and emotional pain in others."

    Comment: Any neuroscience piece should at least give the locations of what the regions found and provide an explanation or a theory. Neglecting to provide this information would be like a physicist saying he or she found a new particle without providing any information about what it is or what it does.

    3) "One of the strengths of neuroimaging is that you can get a quantitative measure of the activity in different regions"

    Comment: fMRI does not provide a quantitative measure. It is 1) a relative measure, meaning it only provides a comparison between two conditions, such as a task and a baseline and 2) does not measure neurons firing. Arterial spin labeling, for example, gives you a quantitative measure.

    4) "In other words, the empathy is there. It’s just on mute."

    comment: This is an example of reverse inference. Even if you find less activation in one region in one group of people compared to another, you can not say because their brains aren’t "doing empathy" that the people aren’t feeling empathy. What do the empathy ratings you are measuring saying? That is more important in the assessment of empathy.

    5) "If he succeeds in quantifying empathy, then perhaps, he says, there will finally be a way to measure whether or not conflict resolution programs are working. If a participant in such a program has "greater" empathic activity in his brain after a program, then, obviously, it’s working."

    comment: Your program succeeds if your participants feel less hostility, which you can ask them about. Or you can measure implicit attitudes, which can on some level control for people desiring to appear tolerant to look good on paper. This is a dramatic case of reverse inference.

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  14. 14. bach4me 7:41 am 06/6/2011

    Does this research relate to the studies of mirror neurons?

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  15. 15. jamescc1 10:32 am 12/10/2012

    Hi Kristina,

    Really enjoyed the article – I’m wondering if Bruneau indicated exactly which anatomical structures in the brain responded to physical and emotional pain in others?

    Would be really useful to know?


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  16. 16. jamescc1 4:45 am 12/13/2012

    Conflict can also be resolved by professional mediation:

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