Monday, May 07, 2012

Brain correlates of whether we help someone suffering.

I thought I would pass on this interesting paper that is being discussed by an emotion seminar group here on the Univ. of Wisc. campus.  Hein et al. touch on the question of whether we are fundamentally good or bad. Is our human nature always fundamentally prosocial?   They find it depends very much on whether we are helping one of "us" or one of "them."  Their summary of the main points, followed by their abstract:

  • Empathy-related brain responses in anterior insula predict costly helping
  • Helping ingroup and outgroup members is predicted by distinct neural responses
  • Brain responses predict behavior toward outgroup members better than self-reports
Little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying prosocial decisions and how they are modulated by social factors such as perceived group membership. The present study investigates the neural processes preceding the willingness to engage in costly helping toward ingroup and outgroup members. Soccer fans witnessed a fan of their favorite team (ingroup member) or of a rival team (outgroup member) experience pain. They were subsequently able to choose to help the other by enduring physical pain themselves to reduce the other's pain. Helping the ingroup member was best predicted by anterior insula activation when seeing him suffer and by associated self-reports of empathic concern. In contrast, not helping the outgroup member was best predicted by nucleus accumbens activation and the degree of negative evaluation of the other. We conclude that empathy-related insula activation can motivate costly helping, whereas an antagonistic signal in nucleus accumbens reduces the propensity to help.

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