The Frontal Cortex

Men, Women and Empathy

Interesting stuff:

The research team led by Tania Singer, at UCL, asked volunteers to play a game with employees of the lab, secretly instructing the employees to play either fairly or unfairly. Afterward, the scientists measured brain activity in the same volunteers under quite different circumstances: looking on as their former game opponents were subjected to various degrees of pain. In both male and female volunteers, the brain areas that signal pain became active, giving neural evidence of their empathy with the others’ pain. Strikingly, however, that empathy did not appear to extend to all the players who were hurting. When unfair-playing employees were seen experiencing pain, the male volunteers – but not the females – showed significantly less empathetic brain activity than when they saw fair-players perceiving pain. Thus, females showed the brain responses of empathy regardless of their moral judgment of the employees’ social behavior, whereas the men’s brain responses were conditional upon how fairly the employee had played.

That’s from The Neuroscience of Fair Play, by Donald Pfaff. The book should really be called “The Molecules of Morality,” since much of the discussion revolves around the role of various brain hormones (like oxytocin and vasopressin) in regulating human behavior. It’s a clear and lucid introduction to the field, even if I worry that the “oxytocin = love/trust/attachment” story is bound to get a lot more complicated.


  1. #1 Janet Bell
    January 23, 2008

    That explains why there will never be peace in the Middle East–there are too many young men!

  2. #2 JB
    January 23, 2008

    But young men and the rest of us can be trained.

    Here’s a quote from the Wall Street Journal Science Journal of 11/5/04 on the work of Richard Davidson at Wisconsin with Tibetan Buddhist monks:

    “Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks’ brains than the novices’. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.

    “It feels like a total readiness to act, to help,” recalled Mr. Ricard.

    The study will be published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We can’t rule out the possibility that there was a pre-existing difference in brain function between monks and novices,” says Prof. Davidson, “but the fact that monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by mental training.”

  3. #3 Dave Briggs
    January 24, 2008

    Thus, females showed the brain responses of empathy regardless of their moral judgment of the employees’ social behavior, whereas the men’s brain responses were conditional upon how fairly the employee had played.

    This seems likely from us testosterone driven types. Even though our wives and girlfriends would tell us to soften up a bit. We seem more likely to be able to handle seeing someone suffering when it appears they brought it upon themselves willingly.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  4. #4 g510
    January 24, 2008

    “The Molecules of Morality”! Excellent! I’m right with you there. For every emotion there is a chemical. People don’t often like hearing this because it appears to reduce them to deterministic machines, devoid of truly free will.

    However, it would appear that between research on “noisy neurons” and theories such as Hameroff’s & Penrose’s (Orchestrated Objective Reduction, abbreiviated Orch-OR), free will is still preserved: it gets into the system via physical randomicity starting at the subcellular level in the neurons.

    I would suggest that it’s worthwhile, in discussions of this type, to emphasize that the neurochemistry of emotion does not imply determinism or the absence of free will.

    To the extent that deliberate learning processes can modify neurophysiology, and to the extent that various neurohormones and neuropeptides can be provided as medications, we are going to have to confront the implications of all of this for the direction of society as a whole.

    For example, in the US, antisocial personality disorder has a prevalence estimated at 4% of the population, making it a far more significant psychiatric pandemic than bipolar disorder or schizophrenia (and far more prevalent than in some other cultures, for example in Japan it is virtually undetectable in the population). I am quite convinced that there is a neurochemical basis for sociopathy (having spoken with a researcher who developed a compound that temporarily induces the key symptom). To the degree that sociopathy shapes our culture, empathy will be seen as a weakness; and the reverse is also true.

    At some point we have to choose what kind of society we will have, and this choice depends to a surprising extent on what kinds of neurochemistry we reinforce in individuals starting with childhood socialization. Recent years have seen a sharp turn in the wrong direction, notably through such instances as the normalization of torture as policy. I would say it is critical for scientists and allied professionals in the relevant fields to become more actively engaged in the social implications of their work, to reverse certain current trends that might otherwise continue toward even worse outcomes.

  5. #5 Rachael
    January 24, 2008

    Fundamentally empathy drives altruism which benefits populations on the whole (according to game theory).

    Maybe the male-type reaction reflects a certain sense of social justice – those who play unfairly will get what comes to them. But what purpose does that retaliation serve for society? It’s not a deterrent.

    Then again, I’m female, so I like how my gender tends to play the game anyway.

    This all got me wondering if we observe anything similar in animals, which led to an interesting study (which is not without ethically questionable methods…)

    D Langford…J Mogil. “Social modulation of pain as evidence for empathy in mice”. Science 312:5782 (2006)

    Empathy is thought to be unique to higher primates, possibly to humans alone. We report the modulation of pain sensitivity in mice produced solely by exposure to their cagemates, but not to strangers, in pain. Mice tested in dyads and given an identical noxious stimulus displayed increased pain behaviors with statistically greater co-occurrence, effects dependent on visual observation. When familiar mice were given noxious stimuli of different intensities, their pain behavior was influenced by their neighbor’s status bidirectionally. Finally, observation of a cagemate in pain altered pain sensitivity of an entirely different modality, suggesting that nociceptive mechanisms in general are sensitized.

    Here’s another interesting study involving humans:

    T Singer…C Frith. “Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain”. Science 303:5661 (2004)

    Our ability to have an experience of another’s pain is characteristic of empathy. Using functional imaging, we assessed brain activity while volunteers experienced a painful stimulus and compared it to that elicited when they observed a signal indicating that their loved one-present in the same room-was receiving a similar pain stimulus. Bilateral anterior insula (AI), rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), brainstem, and cerebellum were activated when subjects received pain and also by a signal that a loved one experienced pain. AI and ACC activation correlated with individual empathy scores. Activity in the posterior insula/secondary somatosensory cortex, the sensorimotor cortex (SI/MI), and the caudal ACC was specific to receiving pain. Thus, a neural response in AI and rostral ACC, activated in common for “self” and “other” conditions, suggests that the neural substrate for empathic experience does not involve the entire “pain matrix.” We conclude that only that part of the pain network associated with its affective qualities, but not its sensory qualities, mediates empathy.

    Also, I’d like to point out the corrollary to the idea that one can “induce” empathy… that you can get rid of it too (soldiers fighting in war are just one example… decreased compassion in researchers performing painful animal experiments… emotional numbness produced in slaughterhouses, etc…)

  6. #6 g510
    January 25, 2008

    Rachel, very interesting comments.

    Empathy – altruism – game theory: agreed.

    Males & social justice:

    This definitely deserves to be explored further, especially as regards the fine line between justice and vengenace (justice good, vengeance bad). Justice in the form of punishment for crime in democratic societies can be seen as a negative feedback system: repaying a violent act with confinement in prison rather than with another violent act (at least in theory; prison rape being a counterexample in practice). Vengeance can be seen as a postive feedback system: repaying a violent act with a more-violent act, which thereby invites yet another violent act in return (about which more below).

    It would be interesting to examine the neurophysiological responses of men to each of the following conditions: Unfair player is scolded by supervisor for unfair play and then a) apologizes to subject and subsequently receives painful stimulus, b) apologizes to subject and subsequently does not receive painful stimulus, c) does not apologize to subject and subsequently receives painful stimulus, d) does not apologize to subject and does not subsequently receive painful stimulus. (Basic four-group design here:-)

    I suspect that we would find clusters of responses to each condition (a) through (d), and that there are correlations with cultural attitudes that can be measured via questionnaires and personality tests. Some men will not care if the unfair player receives a verbal penalty, makes an apology, or suffers pain. Some men will be satisfied with the verbal apology and exhibit an empathic response to the subsequent pain. Some men will not be satisfied with the verbal apology and will not exhibit an empathic response to the subsequent pain. Etc. etc.

    The key question is, what are the cultural and personality factors that are consistent with each cluster of responses, and what are their neurophysiological correlates? This could be very important for treating certain types of juvenile behavior that may later evolve into antisocial behavior, and also important in changing the culture as a whole in a desired direction (or forecasting changes in the culture due to specific social trends).

    Mice and empathy:

    I suspect we would find similarly for other social mammals. Question is, what about nonsocial mammals with similar brain structures?, and what about birds, reptiles, and so on? How far down the phylogenetic scale does this go?

    Second, has anyone identified the communications mechanism (visual, auditory, olfactory) that mice are using to determine that their fellow mice are in pain? Each of these modalities should be easy enough to isolate; and of course one should also use three control conditions: one where all sensory contact is available (is the response stronger?), one in which all sensory contact is blocked, and one where pain is not induced but all sensory contact is available. (Note, even if mice aren’t vocalizing, they may hear each others’ patterns of walking, running, and motion in their cages, all of which need to be considered in the design of the test facilities.)

    For a humane pain stimulus, one might try electrifying the cage floor only to the degree that is slightly greater than that which causes avoidance. The necessary voltage and frequency of current (yes, vary the frequency) could be found by gradually increasing the voltage and decreasing the frequency (from 100 Hz to 10 Hz might be a useful place to start) until the subject mouse begins to display aversive behavior toward the electrified portion of the cage, and then re-testing to determine that the behavior is repeatable, and then increasing the voltage slightly. After all we’re not seeking to torture the mice here, all that is needed is an aversive stimulus.

    The more subtle the stimulus, the greater the likelihood of actual communication between mice rather than simple observation (e.g. mouse A “tells” mouse B, “ow, this hurts”, vs. mouse B observes mouse A writhing and infers that mouse A must be in pain). A truly robust effect (communication-mediated empathy) will stand up to subtle procedures, and the findings will be more meaningful. (And while we’re at it, let’s measure the pulse rates of both mice A and B, that could prove interesting.)

    Induction of empathy in humans:

    How was this done? Entactogenic drugs (e.g. MDMA) are known to produce empathy and are presently used in human subject experiments (with FDA approval; see Pair bonding, via friendship love and romantic love, obviously produces empathy. What other procedures are you aware of?

    As for reduction of empathy e.g. in slaughterhouses: to what degree is this a generalized decrease, or is it specific to the setting? And could it be merely a form of homeostatic adjustment, the emotional equivalent of dark adaptation in the eyes?

    Of relevance here, military training emphasizes that one may only take lives only under strictly limited conditions of combat and lawful orders. The point of this is to “compartmentalize” the killing of other humans from other aspects of the warrior’s life, and the result is that most veterans returning from military to civilian life (provided they have been given adequate time off from combat rotations, in contrast to current policies) do not exhibit symptoms of sociopathy or dulled response to others.

    Interestingly, the history of Western monotheism is relevant to the issues of justice vs. vengeance: as the founders of each branch can be seen as attempting to reduce the positive feedback spiral of violence in their societies. The Hebrew Bible’s reference to “an eye for an eye” can be seen as attempting to substitute “one to one” feedback: one eye for one eye, as an improvement over two eyes for one eye in tribal vengeance. Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” can be seen as a further step in this direction: negative feedback, refusing to respond to violence with violence at all. The Prophet Mohammed, in his role as a military geneeral, called for women & children to be spared in combat, and for defeated opponents to be allowed to convert to Islam rathere than being summarily killed: each of these measures an improvement over the pre-existing conditions of the times.

    However as we have seen, each of these steps (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) has been unable to fully succeed at eliminating tribal vengeance in the Middle East or its analogues elsewhere in the world. One can hope that neurophysiology will provide the means to complete the task.

  7. #7 jb
    January 26, 2008

    Here’s a poet’s response to g510’s question about inducing empathy in humans:

    ” A Shropshire Lad: XXXII

    ” From afar, from eve and morning
    And yon twelve-winded sky,
    The stuff of life to knit me
    Blew hither: here am I.

    ” Now – for a breath I tarry
    Nor yet disperse apart –
    Take my hand quick and tell me
    What have you in your heart.

    ” Speak now, and I will answer;
    How shall I help you, say;
    Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
    I take my endless way. ”

    This was penned by A. E. Housman, who according to Ursula K. LeGuin, ” was God-free. His world was the world of Lucretius and scientific materialism – not presided over by a deity either vengeful or loving, not containing anything humanly attainable beyond physical reality, yet vast, full of mystery. In this world death takes us not to heaven but to earth – to dust, to ‘the wind’s twelve quarters.’ Human love and pain are all the deeper for their brevity; human honor burns all the brighter because it has no reward.”

    Listening and asking no doubt utilize and strenghten the appropriate neural circuits for empathy. So does visualizing using them which is what the monks were doing in meditation for Davidson’s research in Comment #2 above.
    Google ‘the Four Immeasurables’ or ‘Tonglen’.

  8. #8 sesli chat
    January 6, 2009

    thank you

  9. #9 konya chat
    February 13, 2009

  10. #10 nusret
    August 1, 2009

    thanks for article very

  11. #11 Kate
    August 20, 2011

    I think the men win on this. Im a women. People who cause problems in society and harm others, eg people who cheat and lie deserve punishment. Also it could just mean men are less sensitive to physically violence, because men are psychically stronger so from a biologically perspective might be less afraid of pshycial violence than women.

    Frankly the inability of many women to want people to get off, who justifiably deserve punishment eg there sons, disgusts me. People who feel empathy can be selfish sometimes. I am sure the second someone actually hurts THEM they become as unempathatic. Maybe the mens increased reaction is men having a more natural hard wiring to want to see justice brought to wrong doers?

    How is that not selfish?

    Funny how people concentrate on men not showing as much concern top trouble makers getting punished but not the fact men got effected just as much seeing innocent people punished?

    And this all could be down to social learning. Social learning can affect how peoples brains develop and effect stuff like empathic responses. Duh. This doesn’t even prove their is any biological rationale behind this.

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