U. of Chicago researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study the responses of 17 children ages 7-12 to images of pain in others.
When children see an image of a person in pain, portions of their brain register that pain on a fMRI scan. When the children see a person intentionally hurt, portions of the brain associated with moral reasoning are also activated.
The scans showed the kids’ brains light up just like those of adults in previous research: Empathy activates the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray, and supplementary motor area; a moral reaction seems to turn on the temporo-parietal junction, the paracigulate, orital medial frontal cortices, and the amygdala.
Psychologist-psychiatrist Jean Decety suggests that empathy is not entirely the product of nurture, and that future studies could shed light on how children learn right from wrong, and give insights into the roots of violence and bullying. (Science-fiction writers, of course, are assigned to write about how this knowledge can be abused by marketing and propaganda.)
[Image: U. Chicago]