1. Study suggests understanding perceptions of reputation, identity offers opportunity

    September 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Notre Dame press release:

    Though we are taught from an early age not to judge others, we can use our perceptions of others to work toward positive outcomes, both socially and professionally, according to a study from the University of Notre Dame.

    Recognizing when our understanding of someone differs from that individual’s self-perception and also from how others see that same person can provide important insights into managing those relationships, according to “Knowledge of identity and reputation: Do people have knowledge of others’ perceptions?” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Brittany Solomon, research assistant professor of management and organization in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

    The research found that, regardless of how people personally view another person, they also are aware of how that person sees themselves, as well as how they are generally perceived by others.

    “Understanding others’ subjective realities can enhance empathy, cooperation and communication and may also influence one’s own opinions,” Solomon says. “This can prompt people to deliberate and even re-evaluate their own views or enable them to influence others.”

    Specifically, Solomon examined the extent to which people have insight into another person’s identity and reputation. Hundreds of study participants were asked to provide a range of personality perceptions from different points of view, while their friends and acquaintances did the same to show whether people can really see beyond their own views and accurately realize others’ perceptions.

    “Any time you’re interacting with other people, understanding their perspectives is important,” Solomon says. “For example, if I’m a manager or supervisor and I’m trying to motivate an employee, I can assign tasks that will really highlight their strengths or help boost self-esteem in areas of weakness. This approach can affirm people’s identities, build confidence and help uncover hidden talents.”

    Solomon, who studies personality as a predictor of a variety of individual and organizational level outcomes such as job satisfaction and career success, says the research results can greatly improve team dynamics.

    “If you know that one person is seen in positive or negative ways, you can highlight their attributes that perhaps other group members aren’t aware of,” Solomon says. “Or, you could avoid potential conflict by not grouping certain individuals together in the first place.”

    It’s not about determining whose perception is right or wrong. It’s about recognizing that multiple perspectives exist and how that awareness can help inform our interactions with one another.

    “People’s self-perceptions obviously are going to be skewed,” Solomon says. “What matters is that we’re aware of each other’s subjective realities. I think that sometimes people get along because they mistakenly assume everyone is on the same page. The more insight we have into the discrepancies and views of others makes our interactions legitimate. Ultimately, we don’t want to live in a world where we are deluded.”

    The findings can prove valuable in most contexts of life, including negotiation.

    The person who has greater insight into an opponent’s identity can, of course, leverage that information in various ways to win,” Solomon says. “Much of life involves interacting with others. As a friend, parent or teacher, understanding someone else’s identity can help that other person feel understood and provide the groundwork for effective motivation.”


  2. Mice feel others’ pain, literally

    August 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Neuroscience press release:

    Pain sensitivity associated with alcohol withdrawal may activate the same brain region in both drinking and non-drinking mice, finds a study published in eNeuro.

    Monique Smith and colleagues previously showed that “bystander” mice housed with mice undergoing withdrawal from opioids or alcohol experience hyperalgesia, a heightened sensitivity to pain, just like the induced-withdrawal mice. In this study, the authors explored whether brain regions associated with pain and empathy for pain in humans — the somatosensory cortex, insula (INS), and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — might be involved in the social transfer of pain in mice.

    Smith and colleagues compared the brain activity of “primary” mice with access to increasing concentrations of ethanol, bystander mice housed in the same room, and control mice housed in a separate room. The primary mice showed increased activity in the dorsal medial hypothalamus when access to alcohol was removed, which may indicate a role for this area in alcohol withdrawal. In contrast, bystander mice showed increased activity in the ACC and INS. The authors found that inhibiting activity in the ACC reversed hyperalgesia in both primary and bystander mice. These results suggest a potential neural overlap between physically-induced and socially-transferred hyperalgesia.


  3. When lovers touch, their breathing, heartbeat syncs, pain wanes

    July 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Colorado at Boulder press release:

    Fathers-to-be, take note: You may be more useful in the labor and delivery room than you realize.

    That’s one takeaway from a study released last week that found that when an empathetic partner holds the hand of a woman in pain, their heart and respiratory rates sync and her pain dissipates.

    The more empathic the partner and the stronger the analgesic effect, the higher the synchronization between the two when they are touching,” said lead author Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder.

    The study of 22 couples, published in the journal Scientific Reports last week, is the latest in a growing body of research on “interpersonal synchronization,” the phenomenon in which individuals begin to physiologically mirror the people they’re with.

    Scientists have long known that people subconsciously sync their footsteps with the person they’re walking with or adjust their posture to mirror a friend’s during conversation. Recent studies also show that when people watch an emotional movie or sing together, their heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronize. When leaders and followers have a good rapport, their brainwaves fall into a similar pattern. And when romantic couples are simply in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns sync up, research has shown.

    The new study, co-written with University of Haifa Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory and Assistant Professor Irit Weissman-Fogel, is the first to explore interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain and touch. The authors hope it can inform the discussion as health care providers seek opioid-free pain relief options.

    Goldstein came up with the idea after witnessing the birth of his daughter, now 4.

    “My wife was in pain, and all I could think was, ‘What can I do to help her?’ I reached for her hand and it seemed to help,” he recalls. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”

    Goldstein recruited 22 long-term heterosexual couples, age 23 to 32, and put them through a series of tests aimed at mimicking that delivery-room scenario.

    Men were assigned the role of observer; women the pain target. As instruments measured their heart and breathing rates, they: sat together, not touching; sat together holding hands; or sat in separate rooms. Then they repeated all three scenarios as the woman was subjected to a mild heat pain on her forearm for 2 minutes.

    As in previous trials, the study showed couples synced physiologically to some degree just sitting together. But when she was subjected to pain and he couldn’t touch her, that synchronization was severed. When he was allowed to hold her hand, their rates fell into sync again and her pain decreased.

    “It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples,” Goldstein said. “Touch brings it back.”

    Goldstein’s previous research found that the more empathy the man showed for the woman (as measured in other tests), the more her pain subsided during touch. The more physiologically synchronized they were, the less pain she felt.

    It’s not clear yet whether decreased pain is causing increased synchronicity, or vice versa.

    It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect,” said Goldstein.

    Further research is necessary to figure out how a partner’s touch eases pain. Goldstein suspects interpersonal synchronization may play a role, possibly by affecting an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with pain perception, empathy, and heart and respiratory function.

    The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples, or what happens when the man is the subject of pain. Goldstein did measure brainwave activity and plans to present those results in a future study.

    He hopes the research will help lend scientific credence to the notion that touch can ease pain.

    For now, he has some advice for partners in the delivery room: Be ready and available to hold your partner’s hand.


  4. Chatter in the deep brain spurs empathy in rats

    June 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    It’s a classic conundrum: while rushing to get to an important meeting or appointment on time, you spot a stranger in distress. How do you decide whether to stop and help, or continue on your way?

    A new study by neuroscientists at Duke and Stanford University sheds light on how the brain coordinates these complex decisions involving altruism and empathy. The answer lies in the way multiple areas of the brain collaborate to produce the decision, rather than just one area or another making the call.

    “The brain is more than just the sum of its individual parts,” said Jana Schaich Borg, assistant research professor in the Social Science Research Institute and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke.

    Using a technique that combines electrical monitoring of brain activity with machine learning, the team was able to tune into the brain chatter of rats engaged in helping other rats.

    They found that regions deep within the brain — those primarily responsible for emotions and basic bodily functions — are core to empathic decision-making. The specific role of each brain area is not fixed, but can change depending on which other areas it is communicating with, and what specific messages it is receiving, according to Schaich Borg.

    “We know that there are many brain regions that seem to do multiple things, sometimes at the same time, but we don’t know how the brain pulls that off,” Schaich Borg said.

    “One idea is that the function a brain region plays at a specific time could be determined by what it is connected to at that time, what other brain regions are doing at that time, and how brain regions are talking to each other at that time,” Schaich Borg said. “Some people have called this hypothetical phenomenon ‘neural context,’ and we’ve found concrete evidence for that.”

    The results clarify earlier conflicting findings on the role of specific brain regions, such as the insula, in guiding antisocial and psychopathic behavior, and may shed light on how to encourage altruistic behavior in humans.

    The study appears in the June issue of Brain and Behavior.

    Schaich Borg began this research as a graduate student at Stanford, where she was driven to understand the neurological basis of empathy in hopes of finding better treatments for conditions like psychopathy, in which people seem unable to experience empathy at all.

    “I wanted to understand what makes someone help someone else, or what makes someone refrain from hurting another person even when they don’t like them,” Schaich Borg said. Ethical and practical considerations can make it tricky to study the neural mechanisms of this type of decision-making in human subjects. So working with then-advisor Luis de Lecea, she devised an experiment to elicit empathetic decision-making in rats.

    Rats generally dislike bright lights, preferring to stay in places that are dark or dimly lit, Schaich Borg said. But she found that when given a choice, most rats would enter a brightly-lit chamber if it could prevent another rat from receiving an electrical shock.

    A series of molecular tests pinpointed which regions of the brain were active while the rats made these decisions. “The brain regions that encoded what the rat was choosing to do were the same ones we found in other studies to be involved in human empathy and moral decision making,” Schaich Borg said. “It’s fascinating that rats are using the same brain regions that we seem to be using, and it suggests that rats provide a promising avenue for better understanding the way the human brain makes decisions to help others.”

    But the results were also confusing in some ways. Specific areas of the brain, such as the amygdala or the insula, appeared to be increasingly active the more rats chose to help, but these same brain regions were also known to be involved in many other behaviors that had nothing to do with social behavior.

    To get a deeper view of how the rats’ brains coordinated empathic decision-making, Schaich Borg became a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Kafui Dzirasa, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke. Dzirasa had developed a way of simultaneously tuning into electrical signals from multiple points of the brains of awake, behaving rodents. Careful analysis of these signals can reveal not only which parts of the brain are activated, but also how different areas of the brain talk to each other.

    Schaich Borg applied this technique to her rats, recording the activity within 10 specific brain regions while also searching for signs of oscillatory “coherence” or communication between each of the regions as the rats were making decisions about how to respond to other rats getting shocked. Collaborating with statisticians, she then used machine learning techniques to correlate the vast array of brain data with the rats’ behaviors.

    “We found that you cannot describe the behavior as well with single brain regions as you can by looking at coherence, or connections between different brain regions,” Schaich Borg said.

    The results help explain conflicting roles the insula has been found to play in human psychopathy and addiction. “Perhaps the insula facilitates certain social behaviors when it is talking a group of brain regions in one way, but inhibits those same behaviors when it is talking to the same brain regions in a different way,” Schaich Borg said.

    “Our results confirm that if you just look at one brain region at a time, you likely will not be getting the full story of how the mind works,” she said. “To understand how the brain coordinates complex behaviors — especially social behaviors — we likely have to look at the changing inputs and outputs of individual regions in different situations.”


  5. Spouses’ daily responses to partners’ pain linked with later functioning

    June 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    The dynamics of spouses’ daily interactions may influence whether an ill partner’s physical functioning improves over time, according to new findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    “We found that osteoarthritis patients whose spouses were more empathically responsive in daily interactions fared better in terms of their physical function than patients whose spouses were less responsive,” says Ohio State researcher Stephanie J. Wilson, lead author on the study who completed the work as part of her dissertation at Penn State. “Their performance on an objective test improved over time: They were better able to stand from a chair unassisted, maintained better balance, and could walk more quickly.”

    “Other research suggests that people who perform better on these tasks also are more likely to remain independent and to live longer,” Wilson explains. “Thus, our findings have direct clinical implications for chronic pain patients.”

    The idea that our social environment affects our health in incremental ways – through the ups and downs of everyday life – forms the basis of various conceptual frameworks, but Wilson and Penn State professors Lynn M. Martire and Martin J. Sliwinski noted that few studies had actually managed to capture these daily dynamics.

    To address this gap in the literature, senior researcher and thesis adviser Lynn Martire designed a novel study and collected data combining daily diary assessments taken over a short term with physical function measurements taken over longer intervals. Specifically, the team examined the association between spouses’ daily responsiveness to their partners with osteoarthritis and changes in the partners’ physical function over the following 18 months.

    The researchers hypothesized that the degree to which spouses showed empathic, solicitous, and punishing responses in response to their partners’ pain would be associated with the partners’ physical well-being over time. Specifically, partners whose spouses provided emotional support, affection, and attention (empathic behaviors) would show improvement in functioning, while those whose spouses took over tasks and encouraged rest (solicitous behaviors) and those whose spouses acted frustrated and appeared irritated (punishing behaviors) would show diminished functioning over time.

    The study included a total of 152 osteoarthritis patients, all of whom were over 50 years old and married or living with a partner. Participants completed short surveys in the evening every day over the 22-day daily diary period. Spouses rated the degree to which their partners had expressed feeling pain; patients rated the degree to which spouses responded to their pain expression with a variety of behaviors. The researchers measured the patients’ physical function — including balance, gait, speed, and ability to rise from a chair — at the beginning of the study, 6 months later, and 18 months later.

    The results showed that patients with spouses who responded to their expressions of pain with empathic behaviors on a daily basis showed improved physical function 6 and 18 months later relative to patients with less empathic spouses. However, the data did not indicate that either solicitous responses or punishing responses were linked with changes in patients’ physical function.

    “Based on previous work, we expected that patients whose spouses were more solicitously responsive — that is, provided more instrumental help such as retrieving medication and taking over chores — would decline in their physical function over time, but this did not hold,” explains Wilson.

    The findings are novel in that they specifically link patterns in couples’ day-to-day interactions to objective clinical measures, capturing the dynamic nature of how spouses influence each other.

    And the results have implications for a particularly broad audience: “One in five adults is diagnosed with some kind of persistent pain in their lives, and osteoarthritis is among the most common conditions that emerge as we get older,” Wilson notes. “It will be important for future studies to examine whether the empathic responsiveness pattern also bodes well for people with other chronic conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.”


  6. Genes influence ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes

    June 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    Our DNA influences our ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

    Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test of ‘cognitive empathy‘ called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or the Eyes Test, for short). This revealed that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling from looking at their eyes alone. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.

    Now, the same team, working with the genetics company 23andMe along with scientists from France, Australia and the Netherlands, report results from a new study of performance on this test in 89,000 people across the world. The majority of these were 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research. The results confirmed that women on average do indeed score better on this test.

    More importantly, the team confirmed that our genes influence performance on the Eyes Test, and went further to identify genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women that are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes.”

    The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.

    Interestingly, performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3. The team also found the same pattern of results in an independent cohort of almost 1,500 people who were part of the Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study, suggesting the genetic association in females is a reliable finding.

    The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy. Consistent with this, genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the volume of the striatum in humans, a finding that needs to be investigated further.

    Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia tend to score lower on the Eyes Test. The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the risk for anorexia, but not autism. They speculate that this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, and this test only measures a social trait.

    Varun Warrier says: “This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world. This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy.”

    Professor Bourgeron adds: “This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience.”

    Professor Baron-Cohen says: “We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy. This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”


  7. Genes influence ability to read a person’s mind from their eyes

    June 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    Our DNA influences our ability to read a person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes, suggests a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

    Twenty years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed a test of ‘cognitive empathy‘ called the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or the Eyes Test, for short). This revealed that people can rapidly interpret what another person is thinking or feeling from looking at their eyes alone. It also showed that some of us are better at this than others, and that women on average score better on this test than men.

    Now, the same team, working with the genetics company 23andMe along with scientists from France, Australia and the Netherlands, report results from a new study of performance on this test in 89,000 people across the world. The majority of these were 23andMe customers who consented to participate in research. The results confirmed that women on average do indeed score better on this test.

    More importantly, the team confirmed that our genes influence performance on the Eyes Test, and went further to identify genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women that are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes.”

    The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur.

    Interestingly, performance on the Eyes Test in males was not associated with genes in this particular region of chromosome 3. The team also found the same pattern of results in an independent cohort of almost 1,500 people who were part of the Brisbane Longitudinal Twin Study, suggesting the genetic association in females is a reliable finding.

    The closest genes in this tiny stretch of chromosome 3 include LRRN1 (Leucine Rich Neuronal 1) which is highly active in a part of the human brain called the striatum, and which has been shown using brain scanning to play a role in cognitive empathy. Consistent with this, genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the volume of the striatum in humans, a finding that needs to be investigated further.

    Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia tend to score lower on the Eyes Test. The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the Eyes Test also increase the risk for anorexia, but not autism. They speculate that this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, and this test only measures a social trait.

    Varun Warrier says: “This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world. This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy.”

    Professor Bourgeron adds: “This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience.”

    Professor Baron-Cohen says: “We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy. This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population.”


  8. Brain imaging reveals neural roots of caring

    June 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Cell Press press release:

    When others suffer, we humans empathize. Our feelings of empathy take different forms, such as distress when we imagine and internalize someone’s pain and compassion as we sympathize with their condition. These different feelings involve distinct patterns of brain activity, according to a study in Neuron published June 8. Feelings of empathy may seem subtle and personal, but this study, which used stories of human hardship to inspire feelings of empathic care and distress, found that the brain patterns associated with these feelings are consistent and predictable across individuals.

    “Feelings of empathy are virtues we want to cultivate personally and in society,” says first author Yoni Ashar (@YoniAshar), a graduate student in the lab of Tor D. Wager (@torwager), professor of neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Understanding these emotions could open the doors to increasing empathy and compassion in personal relationships and on a broader societal level.”

    Ashar has firsthand experience with empathic distress at home. When his toddlers start crying and fussing, sometimes he gets upset, too. “I’m mirroring them,” he says. “But I don’t need to meet them where they are. I can show compassion, or empathic care, instead.”

    To study empathy, the researchers recruited 66 adults to sit in a brain scanner while listening to 24 true short stories of human distress. For instance, in one story, a young drug addict finds help at a boarding school and later is able to help others recover from addiction. Previous studies of empathy examined brain activity in response to static images flashed on a screen. “We took a naturalistic experimental approach that more closely resembles how we encounter the suffering of others in our daily lives,” says Ashar.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers recorded brain activity patterns as subjects listened to the stories. The subjects heard the stories a second time outside the scanner, this time rating their feelings of distress and care over time as the narratives unfolded. The researchers then mapped the feelings to the patterns.

    Brain activity associated with empathy was not rooted in one part of the brain, the way sensory input tends to be processed. Rather, it was spread across the brain and involved multiple brain regions. “The brain is not a modular system where there’s a region that manages empathy,” says Wager. “It’s a distributed process.”

    Patterns associated with empathic care, for instance, overlapped with systems in the brain associated with value and reward, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In contrast, patterns of empathic distress overlapped with systems in the brain known for mirroring, such as the premotor cortex and the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, which help an individual simulate or imagine what another person is feeling or thinking.

    The patterns were surprisingly consistent from person to person, to the extent that the researchers could predict, based on brain activity, the feelings of an individual who had never been scanned before. “There is a personal element to when a person might feel empathic care or distress, but when you’re feeling them, you’re activating similar brain regions and brain systems as someone else might,” says Ashar.

    In addition to performing brain scans, the researchers asked a separate group of 200 adults to listen to the stories and provide moment-by-moment ratings of their feelings, this time rating more basic feelings of sadness, disgust, anger, fear, negativity, positivity, and happiness. By mapping ratings of empathy to these ratings of more basic feelings, the researchers found that empathic care was associated with both happy and sad feelings, while empathic distress encompasses generally negative feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. “This suggests that empathic care, or compassion, reflects a blend of both warmth and distress,” says Ashar.

    Empathic care is thought to inspire helpful behaviors, but empathic distress is thought by some to be a deterrent, initiating a desire to withdraw or turn away. To explore the influence of these different types of empathy on behavior, the study also asked subjects who underwent brain scans to donate portions of their payment for participation in the study. The study found that both forms of empathy increased the likelihood of charitable donations.

    Empathic distress may influence giving, but it is also associated with negative emotions and burnout in caregivers and nurses. So Wager and colleagues are now investigating a 4-week meditation program designed to teach participants to empathize with others in ways that don’t increase distress but do increase care.


  9. Brain opioids help us to relate to others

    June 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Turku press release:

    New Finnish research reveals how the brain’s opioids modulate responses towards other people’s pain.

    Recent results obtained by researchers from Turku PET Centre and Aalto University have revealed how the human brain’s opioid system modulates responses to other people’s pain.

    Seeing others experiencing pain activated brain circuits that are known to support actual first-hand experience of pain. The less opioid receptors the participants had in their brain, the stronger were their emotion and pain circuits’ response to seeing others in distress. Similar association was not found for the dopamine system despite its known importance in pain management.

    “Capacity for vicarious experiences is a fundamental aspect of human social behaviour. Our results demonstrate the importance of the endogenous opioid system in helping us to relate with others’ feelings. Interindividual differences in the opioid system could explain why some individuals react more strongly than others to someone else’s distress,” says Researcher Tomi Karjalainen from Turku PET Centre.

    “The results show that first-hand and vicarious pain experiences are supported by the same neurotransmitter system. This finding could explain why seeing others in pain often feels unpleasant. High opioid-receptor availability may, however, protect against excessive distress resulting from negative social signals, such as other people’s distress. Our findings thus suggest that the brain’s opioid system could constitute an important social resiliency factor,” tells Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Turku PET Centre and Department of Psychology at the University of Turku.

    The study was conducted by using positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants were injected with radioactive compounds that bind to their brain’s opioid and dopamine receptors. Radioactivity in the brain was measured twice with the PET camera to map the distribution of opioid and dopamine receptors. Subsequently, the participants’ brain activity was measured with fMRI while they viewed videos depicting humans in various painful and painless situations.


  10. Study suggests humans may console victims of aggression out of empathy

    June 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the PLOS press release:

    Like chimpanzees, humans may console their threatened peers out of empathy, according to a study published May 31, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard from the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR), The Netherlands, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and colleagues.

    Consolation is generally defined as an uninvolved bystander initiating friendly contact with a victim of aggression. Previous research has suggested that children and chimpanzees console their peers, but there is little research on consolation in human adults.

    The authors of the present study analyzed real life CCTV footage of 249 individuals who were present in the immediate aftermath of 22 commercial robberies. They investigated whether the social closeness (for example, age similarity or being employees of the same business) and gender of the victim and the bystander affected the likelihood of physical consolation behaviour, such as a touch on the arm or a hug.

    The researchers found that social closeness, rather than physical proximity, was important in determining if a bystander would console a victim, which is consistent with the theory that bystanders console victims when they empathize with them. While females were more likely to console a victim, both male and female victims were equally likely to be consoled. Finally, a victim in a more threatening situation was more likely to receive consolation.

    The authors suggest that these patterns resemble previously observed post-aggression consolation behaviors in chimpanzees, indicating that both humans and chimpanzees may be motivated to console their peers out of empathy. The authors emphasize that comparative research across different species can provide insight into the mental lives of animals, and should have implications for practices in behavioral science and animal research.

    “Unique surveillance camera observations from contexts of real-life violent crimes show that human adults provide victims with consolation in ways similar to what is observed among chimpanzees,” says Lindegaard.