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MRI: Brain Can Empathize Or Analyze, Not Both

November 2, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Anyone who has ever been conned by a hard-luck story can take solace in the revelation that the brain can either empathize with others or engage in analytic thinking—but not both at the same time.

That’s the conclusion (more or less) of researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, assisted by Abraham Snyder, PhD, MD, a researcher at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. NeuroImage published their study online last weekend.

Lead author Anthony Jack, PhD, an assistant professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve, said:

This is the cognitive structure we’ve evolved. Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain.

Dr. Jack was quoted in a Case Western Reserve news release.

The researchers used functional MRI to scan the brains of 45 healthy college students. Each student got 20 written and 20 video problems that required thinking about how others might feel and 20 written and 20 video problems that required the use of physics.

During work on the social problems, the social-network parts of the brain lit up—but the brain deactivated areas associated with analysis. When the students turned to the analytic problems, the opposite happened.

And between problems? Dr. Jack explained:

When subjects are lying in a scanner with nothing to do, which we call the resting state, they naturally cycle between the two networks. This tells us that it’s the structure of the adult brain that is driving this; that it’s a physiological constraint on cognition.

The findings have tremendous implications for treating disorders characterized by social dysfunction, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and schizophrenia. “At present, most rehabilitation, and more broadly most educational efforts of any sort, focus on tuning up the analytic network,” Dr. Jack said. “Yet we found more cortex dedicated to the social network.”

The research could also offer insights into the mirror-image developmental disabilities known as Williams syndrome, characterized by warmth and friendliness but poor performance on visuospatial tests, and autism, typified by strong ability to solve visuospatial problems but poor social skills.

Even healthy, well-adjusted people can get out of balance by relying too much on one of the two neural networks, Dr. Jack said. For example, he 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 analytic way of thinking.”

* * *

Does the wiring of your brain predispose you to be a Republican or a Democrat? Consult our Facebook page to find out whether, as noted pundit Lady Gaga would put it, you were born that way.

Related seminar: UCSF Neuro and Musculoskeletal Imaging


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