Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Empathy represses analytic thought, and vice versa.

Jack et al. have performed a study (online in accepted articles in the journal Neuroimage) observing brain activity in subjects while they were engaged in social versus physical analytical contexts. When the network of neurons that allows us to empathize becomes more active, it suppresses the network used for analysis. When the analytic network is more active, ability to empathize with the human effects of our actions is repressed. Here is their abstract (a bit klutzy, but does the job), and two useful summary figures from the paper.

Two lines of evidence indicate that there exists a reciprocal inhibitory relationship between opposed brain networks. First, most attention-demanding cognitive tasks activate a stereotypical set of brain areas, known as the task-positive network and simultaneously deactivate a different set of brain regions, commonly referred to as the task negative or default mode network. Second, functional connectivity analyses show that these same opposed networks are anti-correlated in the resting state. We hypothesize that these reciprocally inhibitory effects reflect two incompatible cognitive modes, each of which is directed towards understanding the external world. Thus, engaging one mode activates one set of regions and suppresses activity in the other. We test this hypothesis by identifying two types of problem-solving task which, on the basis of prior work, have been consistently associated with the task positive and task negative regions: tasks requiring social cognition, i.e., reasoning about the mental states of other persons, and tasks requiring physical cognition, i.e., reasoning about the causal/mechanical properties of inanimate objects. Social and mechanical reasoning tasks were presented to neurologically normal participants during fMRI. Each task type was presented using both text and video clips. Regardless of presentation modality, we observed clear evidence of reciprocal suppression: social tasks deactivated regions associated with mechanical reasoning and mechanical tasks deactivated regions associated with social reasoning. These findings are not explained by self-referential processes, task engagement, mental simulation, mental time travel or external vs. internal attention, all factors previously hypothesized to explain default mode network activity. Analyses of resting state data revealed a close match between the regions our tasks identified as reciprocally inhibitory and regions of maximal anti-correlation in the resting state. These results indicate the reciprocal inhibition is not attributable to constraints inherent in the tasks, but is neural in origin. Hence, there is a physiological constraint on our ability to simultaneously engage two distinct cognitive modes. Further work is needed to more precisely characterize these opposing cognitive domains.


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