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Empathy is the key of how we respond to other people’s good news

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Posted October 12, 2015

Empathy is usually defined as the psychological identification with another person or even vicarious experiencing of his feelings, thoughts, or attitudes. People who consider empathetic usually are sad for troubles of others and are more inclined to help.

The brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex always responds to good news of others, regardless of level of empathy. However, brain of less empathic people reacts the same way to good news for them also. Image credit: Magnus D via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

The brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex always responds to good news of others, regardless of level of empathy. However, brain of less empathic people reacts the same way to good news for them also. Image credit: Magnus D via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

Now scientists at the University College London have conducted a research which demonstrated that the way our brain responds to the fortune of other people is linked to how empathetic people consider themselves to be.

This new research demonstrated that a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex appears to be particularly attuned to other people’s good news, but how it responds varies substantially depending on our levels of empathy. Explained simply, research showed that the anterior cingulate cortex responds differently in people who have higher empathy.

When people who reported themselves to be less empathetic get to know about another person’s success, the anterior cingulate cortex responded like in people who have higher level of empathy. However, this brain region also responded when bad news was predicted for themselves, while it remained quiet in such case for people with higher degree of empathy.

Scientists say that these results are rather significant in efforts to understand this brain region better. There are disorders involving the anterior cingulate cortex, for example, psychopathy and autism. Therefore, further research should analyse how people with these disorders respond to their success in comparison with other people’s success. Now that scientists already know effective methodology to research the anterior cingulate cortex.

During this research scientists scanned the brains of 30 male volunteers aged 19-32. They were using functional magnetic resonance imaging and showed participants symbols that predicted how likely either they or another person was to win money. A week before scanning participants had to evaluate their level of empathy using a questionnaire.

Scientists wanted to see if the brains of people who have high levels of empathy are particularly responsive to other people’s good fortune. They found that when someone else was very likely to win money the anterior cingulate cortex activated in the brain of all participants, regardless of their level of empathy. However, scientists say that results begin to differ when they look at how specialized this brain region appears to be.

When people consider themselves to be highly empathic, it means their anterior cingulate cortex activation is mostly specialised for other people. Therefore, it was only activated when the other person was very likely to win money. People who have less specialized anterior cingulate cortex brain region reacted the same way when they were most likely to win the lottery.

Professor Essi Viding, the senior author of the study, said: “We were excited to find that differences in how empathetic people were changed how ‘specialised’ the ACC was when responding to other people’s rewards. Future research is needed to determine whether this degree of specialization also relates to other traits besides empathy, such as how competitive people are.”

Scientists already have further steps in mind. They will not only try to see how this brain region responds in people with psychopathy and autism, but will also investigate how real life social interactions can be influenced by how specialised this area of the brain is. Researchers will also if they can use these results to explain why some people only feel happy for others’ success when they feel successful themselves. In the end, it all comes down to empathy – some people can feel happy for others, while some simply cannot.

Source: UCL

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