The Frontal Cortex

The Neuroscience of Admiration

I know the medium is the message, but does every message have to be about the medium? People on twitter love tweeting about twitter, just as people on facebook love writing about the facebook redesign. Sometimes, this navel gazing can get out of hand, which is what I think happened with a recent (and extremely interesting) PNAS paper on the neural substrate of admiration and compassion. The paper, by scientists at USC, has nothing to do with twitter or online social networks or even the internet, and yet that quickly became the main story. Before long, there were a flurry of posts with dubious headlines, such as “Is Twitter evil?” (If that doesn’t get you on the front page of digg, then nothing will.)

As far as I can tell, the culprit behind this story line was a press release from USC, which began with this intriguing lede:

Tweet this: Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass.

Emotions linked to our moral sense awaken slowly in the mind, according to a new study from a neuroscience group led by corresponding author Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC College.

The finding, contained in one of the first brain studies of inspirational emotions in a field dominated by a focus on fear and pain, suggests that digital media culture may be better suited to some mental processes than others.

“For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” said first author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the USC Rossier School of Education.
Humans can sort information very quickly and can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others.

Admiration and compassion – two of the social emotions that define humanity – take much longer, Damasio’s group found.

Unfortunately, I think the press-release (and the ensuing blogospheric reaction) missed the really interesting finding. It’s not so surprising, after all, that more complex moral emotions (such as admiration for virtue or compassion for psychological pain) take a little bit more time to develop than reactions directly based on bodily manifestations, such as compassion for physical pain or admiration for physical skill. When we see someone grimace and shriek, we quickly realize that they’re hurt. However, sympathizing with someone else’s psychological pain requires a chain of inferences – we need to look at the situation from their perspective and decipher why they might be upset – and that takes a few extra seconds of cognitive processing.

So what’s the really interesting finding? I think this extremely well-done paper teaches us something quite surprising about how the body and mind interact to create an emotional state. (This shouldn’t be too surprising, since it’s from the lab of Antonio Damasio, pioneer of the somatic marker hypothesis.) Over the last few decades, Damasio has dramatically recast the function and substrate of our emotion life and this latest paper extends his work to admiration and compassion, two emotions that are critical for human morality. Here’s my favorite snippet from the paper:

Emotions related to someone else’s “psychological” state, e.g. social pain or virtue, may preferentially recruit a network involving the inferior/posterior PMC and the anterior middle cingulate, which are affiliated with interoceptive information; by contrast, emotions related to someone else’s “physical” state, e.g. painful injury or virtuosic skill, may recruit the sector of PMC most connected with lateral parietal cortices, suggesting a connection to exteroception and musculoskeletal information. [SNIP] Overall, these results suggest that the processing of social emotions is organized less around the kind of emotional response, be it compassionate or admiring, than around the contents and context of the situation.

In other words, the cortical anatomy underling admiration for physical skill had more in common with compassion for physical pain than it did with admiration for psychological virtue. From the perspective of the brain, it’s not about admiration or compassion – it’s about whether what we’re showing admiration or compassion for is rooted in the physical or the mental. Because the brain is a jerry-rigged computer, designed by a blind watchmaker, we parse the world in terms of all sorts of idiosyncratic categories. We process bodies differently than we process thoughts, a distinction so fundamental to the way we perceive the world that it underlies even the loftiest of social emotions.

What does that have to do with twitter? I still have no idea.


  1. #1 Afshin
    April 15, 2009

    Hi Jonah,

    Thanks for the added speed bump to the flow of the twitter demonization. Though the real purpose of this message to make a request and that is to have the acronyms be spelled out first to at least have us laymen understand what the acronyms mean the next time we see them in the post.


  2. #2 The Neurocritic
    April 15, 2009

    Jonah – Have you read the actual journal article? It wasn’t clear from your post. Part of the problem is with the lengthy embargo policy at PNAS. The press (which includes you, of course) can see the paper a week before the rest of us. The most complete report on the actual experiment that I’ve seen thus far is at the MSNBC link above (Cosmic Log).

    The USC press release does seem to be the original culprit for the Twitter angle. The writers of news story headlines haven’t helped in that regard.

  3. #3 David Dobbs
    April 15, 2009

    nicely done. the whole affair also shows how an iconic device of Old Media, the press release (disguised as news at ScienceDaily), can get misread and re-re-relaunched virally by the newest icon of NewNewMedia, twitter — all in away that promotes great misunderstanding and a noise that says more about the messengers than either the message or the medium.

    There. That’s my meta for the day.

  4. #4 Noah Gray
    April 15, 2009

    This is all just a comedy of errors. From the USC press release obviously not being in sync with the PNAS embargo, the USC news team whipping up the connections to social media (without the authors protesting, based on their quotes), to providing a false citation for the paper (since it clearly is not in the Vol. 106, No. 15 edition of PNAS)…what’s going on here?

    Parallel to Jonah’s views, is science so damn boring that we have to create story lines just so MSNBC and Fox will talk about it???

    [see the Neurocritic’s piece for all of the links to the material discussed here]

  5. #5 June
    April 16, 2009

    navel gazing, Jonah, navEl

  6. #6 Ahnald Brownshwagga the Monkey
    April 16, 2009

    These results remind me of the mirror neuron explanations of empathy. We understand the actions, and apparently emotions, of others by activating the neuronal chains that would be used if we were behaving the same way. The brain then infers which inputs would’ve typically caused those chains to activate had we performed the action ourselves, and extrapolates those inputs to understand the perceived behaviors.

    Nothing to do with twitter.

  7. #7 llewelly
    April 16, 2009

    What does that have to do with twitter? I still have no idea.

    The answer is staring you in the face:

    Because the brain is a jerry-rigged computer, designed by a blind watchmaker, we parse the world in terms of all sorts of idiosyncratic categories.

  8. #8 Anibal
    April 17, 2009

    Science has a slow pace of progress and the inmediacy of some new IT make us all hurry: we live in the era of rush.

    But in terms of the core of the story i think its all about how emotional perception and processing is shaped by the way digital media “build” the news, and viceversa, how our brains impose a way to process some media information more easily than others

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