Washington: While one might assume that we would empathize more with people we like, a new study has indicated that the human brain focuses more greatly on the need to monitor enemies closely, especially when they are suffering.
The part of the brain that is associated with empathizing with the pain of others is activated more strongly by watching the suffering of hateful people as opposed to likable people.
The study examined activity in the so-called "pain matrix" of the brain, a network that includes the insula cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the somatosensory cortices - regions known to activate when an individual watches another person suffer.
The pain matrix is thought to be a related to empathy - allowing us to understand another's pain.
However, this study indicates that the pain matrix may be more involved in processing pain in general, and not necessarily tied to empathic processing.
Participants- all of them white, male, and Jewish- first watched videos of hateful, anti-Semitic individuals in pain and then other videos of tolerant, non-hateful individuals in pain. Their brains were scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to show activity levels in the pain matrix.
Surprisingly, the participants' pain matrices were more activated by watching the anti-Semites suffer compared to the tolerant individuals.
"The results further revealed the brain's flexibility in processing complex social situations. The brain uses the complete context of the situation to mount an appropriate response. In this case, the brain's response is likely tied to the relative increase in the need to attend to and understand the pain of the hateful person," lead author Glenn Fox said.
The study is published in Frontiers in Psychology.