Neuroscientists trying to tease out the mechanisms underlying the basis of human sympathy have found that such feelings trigger brain activity not only in areas associated with emotion but also in areas associated with performing an action. But, when people act in socially inappropriate ways this activity is replaced by increased activity in regions associated with social conflict.
Understanding the neurophysiology of such basic human characteristics as sympathy is important because some people lack those feelings and may behave in anti-social ways that can be extremely costly to society, said Dr. Jean Decety of the University of Washington. Decety heads the social-cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the UWs Center for Mind, Brain & Learning and is lead author of a new study that appears in a just-published special issue of the journal Neuropsychologia.
In the study, Decety and doctoral student Thierry Chaminade used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to explore what brain systems were activated while people watched videos of actors telling stories that were either sad or neutral in tone. The neutral stories were based on everyday activities such as cooking and shopping. The sad stories described events that could have happened to anyone, such as a drowning accident or the illness of a close relative. The actors were videotaped telling the stories, which lasted one to two minutes, with three different expressions – neutral, happy or sad.
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