Be Empathetic or Analytical: Our Brains Can Only Do One At a Time


Researchers at Case Western Reserve University and colleagues are reporting in the journal NeuroImage that our brains can't function with empathy and be analytical at the same time.

Specifically, the brain circuitry involved in empathy, or in understanding the views and considerations of others, has a way of inhibiting the circuitry used in analytical thinking, such as computing math problems. And the process works the other way as well, meaning they can't be performed simultaneously.

The authors believe their study is the first to make a definitive identification of the brain's inability to think in both empathetic and analytic terms. According to researchers, the cognitive structure allowing only one thought pathway or the other is an "evolved" one:

"Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain."

Researchers recruited 45 healthy college students, each of whom spent ten minutes at a time inside a functional MRI brain scanner, while they were presented with random selections of 20 written and 20 video problems on a screen. The problems forced the students to consider how others might feel. They were presented with a selection of 20 written and 20 video problems, this time where they were required to apply physics in order to solve them. All problems required a yes/no answer within seven seconds of being given the problem.

On analyzing the brain scans, researchers determined that when students had to consider how others felt, the brain region that corresponded with analytical thinking would shut down while the regions linked to empathy became very active, and vice versa. It didn't matter whether the problem was written or on video, the results were the same.

During rest periods, brain activity was seen to be moving between each region.

"What we see in this study is similar [to perceptual rivalry, when neural inhibition between two regions occurs], but much more wide-scale," the researchers said. "We see neural inhibition between the entire brain network we use to socially, emotionally and morally engage with others, and the entire network we use for scientific, mathematical and logical reasoning."

Their findings, they believe, could have implications for mental disorders that feature a social dysfunction component, such as ADHD or schizophrenia.

Source: MNT

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