Why even the hardest heart can melt: Scientists find we can’t empathise and analyze at the same time
Source: Mail Online • FIONA MACRAE • November 1, 2012
- Team analysed 45 people for new survey
- Found brain networks responsible for empathy and analysis were unable to function at the same time
Even the hardest heart sometimes melts.
Now scientists think they know why.
Research shows that when we put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, the part of the brain used for cold, hard analysis is suppressed.
The finding could explain why even highly-intelligent people get taken in by sob stories.
It comes from US scientists who scanned the brain of 45 young men and women as they solved problems.
Half of the questions required them to think about how others might feel and half were based on physics.
When they were lying in the scanner with nothing to do, their brain cycled between a region associated with empathising and one linked to analysis.
But when asked to think about others, the empathy network fired up and the analytical one was turned down.
The reverse occurred when given physics to do, the journal NeuroImage reports.
In other words, it is difficult to empathise and analyse at the same time.
Researcher Anthony Jack, of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, said: ‘This is a cognitive function we’ve evolved.
‘Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain.’
This could explain why even the smartest people get taken in my tales spun by conmen.
With the empathetic part of their brain hard at work, the side that would expose flaws in the story can’t do its job.
However, some people rely too much on one type of thinking.
For instance, hard-headed business leaders can be oblivious to the human cost of their actions.
Professor Jack said: ‘You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business.
‘But you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytical way of thinking.
‘You’ll never get by without both networks. You don’t have to favour one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the same time.’
The research could offer insight into anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and ADHD, all of which involve problems in interacting socially.
It could also increase understanding of autism, in which people are often good at solving complex visuo-spatial problems but have poor social skills.