Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

By Helen Thomson

You really should listen to your heart. People who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of people around them. What’s more, improving this ability might help some people with autism and schizophrenia.

Can you feel your heart beating softly against your breastbone? Or perhaps you feel hungry, thirsty or in pain? If so, you are perceiving your internal state – a process called interoception. It’s thought that to generate emotions, we first need to interpret our body’s internal state of affairs.

So if we see a rabid dog, we only feel fear once we recognise an increase in our heart rate or perceive a sweaty palm. Some people with conditions that involve having poor interoceptive abilities also have trouble interpreting their emotions.

But researchers have also speculated that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking, and even guessing what they think a third person might be thinking – known as theory of mind. The idea is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret the emotions – and corresponding mental states – of others.

Empathy test

To investigate, Geoff Bird, now at the University of Oxford, and his team asked 72 volunteers to count their heartbeats, but without using their fingers to take their pulse – a measure of interoception.

The participants then watched videos of various social interactions. After each clip, they were asked multiple-choice questions that tested their ability to infer the characters’ mental states.

For instance, one scene showed a man called Tom trying to flirt with a girl called Gemma, who was clearly interested in a second, shyer man, Barry.

Some questions required the participants to understand the emotions of a certain character – for instance, “Is Gemma feeling annoyed?” Participants who were better at counting their own heartbeat performed better on such questions. “They were more empathetic,” says Bird.

But there was no link between interoceptive abilities and accuracy on theory of mind questions that didn’t involve any emotions, such as “What does Barry think Gemma thinks Tom’s intentions are?” This suggests that our ability to interpret signals from our own body only helps us understand the thoughts of others when emotion is a factor.

Heartbeat training

“Studies like these show nicely that interoceptive abilities are engaged in different ways for different tasks,” says Anil Seth at the University of Sussex in Brighton. “But these relations are likely to be highly complex, so it would be interesting to look also at other dimensions of interoception, like breathing.”

Bird says that interoceptive difficulties probably play a role in a range of symptoms experienced by some people with conditions such as autism and schizophrenia. For instance, some people with autism find loud noises and bright lights upsetting. These things are linked to interoception, making our hearts beat faster and raising our level of arousal.

“It’s purely theoretical for now,” says Bird, “but if you’re not good at distinguishing the internal signals that arise from loud noises and bright lights from others that are related to pain, say, then maybe those [innocuous] signals could be interpreted as painful.”

“It’s not yet been shown whether training your interoception also improves your empathy, but it’s an experiment we’d like to try,” adds Bird. One way to do this is to get people to listen to a tone that beats in time with their heart and gets quieter over time. There’s also some evidence that looking in a mirror can improve interoception.

We don’t know yet what effect such training might have on our ability to discriminate between our own emotions and those of other people. “Could training better interoceptive awareness make it more difficult for people to disentangle their own feelings from those of others?” asks Lara Maister at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Journal reference: Cortex, DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2017.02.010

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2129367-listening-to-your-heartbeat-helps-you-read-other-peoples-minds/

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Tylenol reduces empathy

Posted: June 20, 2016 in empathy
Tags: , ,


When you take acetaminophen to reduce your pain, you may also be decreasing your empathy for both the physical and social aches that other people experience, a new study suggests.

Researchers at The Ohio State University found, for example, that when participants who took acetaminophen learned about the misfortunes of others, they thought these individuals experienced less pain and suffering,when compared to those who took no painkiller.

“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen,” said Dominik Mischkowski, co-author of the study and a former Ph.D. student at Ohio State, now at the National Institutes of Health.

“Acetaminophen can reduce empathy as well as serve as a painkiller.”

Mischkowski conducted the study with Baldwin Way, who is an assistant professor of psychology and member of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research; and Jennifer Crocker, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology and professor of psychology at Ohio State. Their results were published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Acetaminophen — the main ingredient in the painkiller Tylenol — is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, found in more than 600 medicines, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group.

Each week about 23 percent of American adults (about 52 million people) use a medicine containing acetaminophen, the CHPA reports.

In an earlier study, Way and other colleagues found that acetaminophen also blunts positive emotions like joy.

Taken together, the two studies suggest there’s a lot we need to learn about one of the most popular over-the-counter drugs in the United States.

“We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning,” said Way, the senior author of the study.

“Empathy is important. If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

The researchers conducted two experiments, the first involving 80 college students. At the beginning, half the students drank a liquid containing 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, while the other half drank a placebo solution that contained no drug. The students didn’t know which group they were in.

After waiting one hour for the drug to take effect, the participants read eight short scenarios in which someone suffered some sort of pain. For example, one scenario was about a person who suffered a knife cut that went down to the bone and another was about a person experiencing the death of his father.

Participants rated the pain each person in the scenarios experienced from 1 (no pain at all) to 5 (worst possible pain). They also rated how much the protagonists in the scenarios felt hurt, wounded and pained.

Overall, the participants who took acetaminophen rated the pain of the people in the scenarios to be less severe than did those who took the placebo.

A second experiment involved 114 college students. As in the first experiment, half took acetaminophen and half took the placebo.

In one part of the experiment, the participants received four two-second blasts of white noise that ranged from 75 to 105 decibels. They then rated the noise blasts on a scale of 1 (not unpleasant at all) to 10 (extremely unpleasant).

They were then asked to imagine how much pain the same noise blasts would cause in another anonymous study participant.

Results showed that, when compared to those who took the placebo, participants who took acetaminophen rated the noise blasts as less unpleasant for themselves — and also thought they would be less unpleasant for others.

“Acetaminophen reduced the pain they felt, but it also reduced their empathy for others who were experiencing the same noise blasts,” Mischkowski said.

In another part of the experiment, participants met and socialized with each other briefly. Each participant then watched, alone, an online game that purportedly involved three of the people they just met. (The other participants weren’t actually involved).

In the “game,” two of the people the participants had met excluded the third person from the activity.

Participants were then asked to rate how much pain and hurt feelings the students in the game felt, including the one who was excluded.

Results showed that people who took acetaminophen rated the pain and hurt feelings of the excluded student as being not as severe as did the participants who took the placebo.

“In this case, the participants had the chance to empathize with the suffering of someone who they thought was going through a socially painful experience,” Way said.

“Still, those who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.”

While these results had not been seen before, they make sense in the light of previous research, Way said.

A 2004 study scanned the brains of people as they were experiencing pain and while they were imagining other people feeling the same pain. Those results showed that the same part of the brain was activated in both cases.

“In light of those results, it is understandable why using Tylenol to reduce your pain may also reduce your ability to feel other people’s pain as well,” he said.

The researchers are continuing to study how acetaminophen may affect people’s emotions and behavior, Way said. They are also beginning to study another common pain reliever — ibuprofen — to see if it has similar results.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160510084257.htm

Our brain’s ability to process information and adapt effectively is dependent on a number of factors, including genes, nutrition, and life experiences. These life experiences wield particular influence over the brain during a few sensitive periods when our most important muscle is most likely to undergo physical, chemical, and functional remodeling.

According to Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at MIT, your “terrible twos” and those turbulent teen years are when the brain’s wiring is most malleable. As a result, traumatic experiences that occur during these time periods can alter brain activity and ultimately change gene expressions—sometimes for good.

Throughout the first two years of life, the brain develops at a rapid pace. However, around the second year, something important happens—babies begin to speak.

“We start to understand speech first, then we start to articulate speech ourselves and that’s a really complex thing that goes on in the brain,” Swart, who conducts ongoing research on the brain and how it affects how we become leaders, told Quartz. “Additionally, children start to walk—so from a physical point of view, that’s also a huge achievement for the brain.

Learning and understanding a new language forces your brain to work in new ways, connecting neurons and forming new pathways. This is a mentally taxing process, which is why learning a new language or musical instrument often feels exhausting.

With so many important changes happening to the brain in such a short period of time, physical or emotional trauma can cause potentially momentous interruptions to neurological development. Even though you won’t have any memories of the interruptions (most people can’t remember much before age five), any kind of traumatic event—whether it’s abuse, neglect, ill health, or separation from your loved ones—can lead to lasting behavioral and cognitive deficits later in life, warns Swart.

To make her point, Swart points to numerous studies on orphans in Romania during the 1980s and 1990s. After the nation’s communist regime collapsed, an economic decline swept throughout the region and 100,000 children found themselves in harsh, overcrowded government institutions.

“[The children] were perfectly well fed, clothed, washed, but for several reasons—one being that people didn’t want to spread germs—they were never cuddled or played with,” explains Swart. “There was a lot of evidence that these children grew up with some mental health problems and difficulty holding down jobs and staying in relationships.”

Swart continues: “When brain scanning became possible, they scanned the brains of these children who had grown up into adults and showed that they had issues in the limbic system, the part of the brain [that controls basic emotions].”

In short, your ability to maintain proper social skills and develop a sense of empathy is largely dependent on the physical affection, eye contact, and playtime of those early years. Even something as simple as observing facial expressions and understanding what those expressions mean is tied to your wellbeing as a toddler.

The research also found that the brains of the Romanian orphans had lower observable brain activity and were physically smaller than average. As a result, researchers concluded that children adopted into loving homes by age two have a much better chance of recovering from severe emotional trauma or disturbances.

The teenage years

By the time you hit your teenage years, the brain has typically reached its adult weight of about three pounds. Around this same time, the brain is starting to eliminate, or “prune” fragile connections and unused neural pathways. The process is similar to how one would prune a garden—cutting back the deadwood allows other plants to thrive.

During this period, the brain’s frontal lobes, especially the prefrontal cortex, experience increased activity and, for the first time, the brain is capable of comparing and analyzing several complex concepts at once. Similar to a baby learning how to speak, this period in an adolescent’s life is marked by a need for increasingly advanced communication skills and emotional maturity.

“At that age, they’re starting to become more understanding of social relationships and politics. It’s really sophisticated,” Swart noted. All of this brain activity is also a major reason why teenagers need so much sleep.

Swart’s research dovetails with the efforts of many other scientists who have spent decades attempting to understand how the brain develops, and when. The advent of MRIs and other brain-scanning technology has helped speed along this research, but scientists are still working to figure out what exactly the different parts of the brain do.

What is becoming more certain, however, is the importance of stability and safety in human development, and that such stability is tied to cognitive function. At any point in time, a single major interruption has the ability to throw off the intricate workings of our brain. We may not really understand how these events affect our lives until much later.

http://qz.com/470751/your-brain-is-particularly-vulnerable-to-trauma-at-two-distinct-ages/