Empathy in shades of grey

Scientific American has an insightful and beautifully written article asking whether it is possible to make sense of empathy using brain scans.

Neuroscience studies are increasingly focusing on what science calls ‘high level’ concepts and what those outside the field might just call ‘vague’.

Empathy is probably not in the ‘vague’ category although it is true to say that there are several competing definitions and no standard way of measuring it.

It does have huge intuitive appeal, however, leading to a boom in brain scanning studies that are trying to pin down how we understand other people’s emotions.

The SciAm piece takes a trip to the Saxelab Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at MIT to take a look at how at how a study is attempting to understand the neuroscience of empathy, as well as asking some searching questions about whether we are over-simplifying the problem

A short but excellent piece of writing.
 

Link to SciAm article ‘Looking for Empathy’ (via @edyong209).

3 Comments

  1. Posted May 23, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Kind of glad this one does actually touch on the fMRI scandal because that would be my first critique. Groundbreaking work though!

  2. Emmy
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Too funny about the dead salmon. I appreciate that they were willing to mention the limitations of the method.

    More than qualifying empathy, I’d be interested in the fMRI results when comparing components of empathy, for example sympathy vs respect.

  3. Vanessa
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Very interesting! I love that Bruneau was looking at different aspects of empathy in one study. Empathy is difficult to study because there are many different components of empathy – I think it’s unfair to consider it vague, but it is difficult to define for the same reason that it is difficult to study. Of course, Rebecca Saxe is famously modular in her approach – she would say that pure empathy is housed in a particular part of the brain. :P


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