The Kids Are All Right: Children Come by Empathy Naturally

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]

5 thoughts on “The Kids Are All Right: Children Come by Empathy Naturally”

  1. Thanks. I’m a bit familiar with the idea, which is fascinating (though I didn’t see it explicitly mentioned in the stories about this study).

  2. I am a first time parent, and my two year old child has empathized non stop with a Sesame Street character (Zoe) in a book who became sad when she thought a friend (Elmo) didn’t like her.

    I always thought her responses seemed somewhat mechanical in nature, and because of this research, now I understand why. Thanks for this post.

  3. Glad you found it interesting, Heather. I’m a first-timer, too, and my observation of the empathy of my son and his classmates is that parenting still has a lot to do with it.

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