First study to watch brain patterns when forgiving

Different parts of brain are activated

In the first study ever to examine how the brain functions when making judgments about forgivability and empathy, researcher Tom Farrow, B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., found that different regions of the brain are activated when a person makes judgments about forgiving.

The findings will be presented at the Scientific Conference on Forgiveness along with studies from over 40 of the top scientists in the world who study forgiveness. The conference is in Atlanta October 24-25. To register, log on to the Press Room at: http://www.forgiving.org/campaign/clippings.asp

This study, conducted in the UK, shows that forgiveness is a complex process that occurs in the brain. Different parts of the brain are utilized when a person makes moral judgments, empathizes with someone and eventually makes judgments about how forgivable the person and/or action may be. Farrow’s study is the first ever to examine how the brain functions when making judgments about forgivability and empathy. Through MRI scanning of a healthy control group, the study found that judgments about forgivability and empathy produced a distinct pattern of brain activity.

Following therapy, the brain activity of two separate groups of patients, one with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the other with Schizophrenia, appeared to normalize and return to the patterns seen in the healthy control group. These changes were noted in the portion of the brain involved in feeling empathy and making moral judgments. Changes were not as pronounced in the regions of the brain that controls forgivability judgments.

Farrow is a Lecturer in Adult Psychiatry (Neuroimaging), Sheffield Cognition and Neuroimaging Laboratory (SCANLab), Sheffield University, UK. He is also a Visiting Royal Society Overseas Research Fellow, Brain DynamicsCentre,Westmead Hospital and Honorary Lecturer, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Sydney, Australia.

(Control data published in the Journal of Neuro Report, Vol. 12, Issue 11, pages 2433-2438 in 2001; PTSD data under submission to the British Journal of Psychiatry; Schizophrenia data is being typed up and prepared for submission; PTSD and Schizophrenia data presented at many conferences in the U.S., Japan and Australia.)

ABSTRACT: Farrow, Tom: Brain Imaging and Empathic and Forgivability Judgments

1. Brain imaging of high-level cognitive functions is feasible.
2. Physiologically, forgiveness is almost certainly a multi-dimensional complex cognitive process.
3. Preliminary evidence suggests that it may be possible to demonstrate brain activation change, concomitant with symptom resolution and / or therapeutic input.

Forgiveness is likely to comprise multiple cognitive components. One such component may be the ability to judge the forgivability of another’s actions. Another component may be an ability to empathize with others, including an aggressor. Empathy consists of two components: an affective (visceral emotional reaction) and a cognitive (understanding of the conspecific’s behaviour). Empathy and forgiveness are also both heavily dependent on the expression and interpretation of emotions. We used functional MRI to examine the neural correlates of making empathic and forgivability judgments. To our knowledge this is the first study to examine the functional anatomy of forgiveness. We posited that forgiveness incorporates judgments of another’s intentions, their emotional state and the forgivability of their actions. While it was not feasible to image subjects actively forgiving or empathizing in ’real life’, we used narrative scenarios derived from everyday life, to probe the neural systems supporting these complex cognitive functions. We hypothesised that fronto-temporal regions would be differentially activated by these tasks.

Method:-12 healthy control subjects and 13 patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) underwent fMRI scanning, while they engaged in tasks: (i) that involve speculation on another’s intention, (ii) that invoke empathy and (iii) involve making judgments of actions’ forgivability; each versus ’baseline’ social reasoning judgments. A post-therapy fMRI scan followed a course of cognitive behavioral therapy with a forgiveness component. Results: Post-therapy, we found increased activation in brain regions predicted on the basis of foregoing work in healthy controls. These included significant left middle temporal gyrus activation in post-therapy response to empathy judgments and posterior cingulate gyrus activation in post-therapy response to forgivability judgments.

Conclusions: Empathic and forgivability judgments activate specific regions of the human brain, which we propose contribute to social cohesion. The activation in these regions changed with symptom resolution in PTSD.

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