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The Scanner on the Mount: a neural challenge to “love thy enemy”

October 19, 2011

I’m currently reviewing fMRI publications about empathy. In surveying the existent literature on empathic neural dynamics, I came across Tania Singer’s 2006 publication in Nature that explores the human brain’s tendency toward conditional empathy. Subjects were recruited to play an economic game in which their opponent was either a cheater or a fair player. Following participation in the game, subjects observed the other player receive painful electrical shocks to their hand. In the circumstances where the opposing player was a fair opponent, there was a clear activation of the neural circuitry responsible for empathic responses to pain. Subjects easily empathized with the pain of their opponent, if their opponent had treated them fairly.

However, when a subject observed a cheating opponent receive a painful shock, the activity of the neural circuitry involved in empathy was significantly reduced. In other words, there was considerably less empathy generated by the brain when the person in pain was known to be an unfair individual.

Going the extra mile, the men who participated in the study–in contrast to the women who participated–not only demonstrated a reduction in the neural circuitry controlling empathy when a cheater received painful shocks: the men in the study actually showed activation of their reward pathways when the unfair opponent was observed to be in pain. It appears that at the neural level, men took pleasure in seeing an unfair person suffer.

Zooming out from the limited conditions of a laboratory economic game, it seems reasonable to guess that the amount of empathy that a person experiences for another is generally conditioned upon the perceived fairness of the other individual. The implications for this finding are vast.

It is no revelation that religious identity establishes an in-group/out-group dichotomy between those belonging to the like-believing community and those with varying and alternate beliefs. What is interesting to note, though, is that unlike in-group/out-group dynamics based on national, ethnic, or team identification, the group dynamics built upon religious identity are inherently intertwined with notions of morality and right-living. Thus, if the behavior of someone outside of your religious framework does not conform to the norms of your community, it is not simply seen as a casual divergence of preference or tradition, but the behavioral and attitudinal variations are interlinked with the perception of moral valence and sin. Is it such a stretch to suppose that–like the unfair players in the economic game–someone who is perceived to be immoral or sinful will be naturally regarded with diminished empathic responsiveness when they are seen to suffer? Or, more troubling, could the biological mechanisms of conditional empathy have given room for the idea of a punitive God that has proliferated across religious traditions as a final outcome for the out-group infidel?

Especially when we consider that the lion’s share of religion on this planet has been disproportionately crafted by men (you know…the gender that activates a reward response when they see someone suffering who they perceive to behave unfairly), it’s almost an “of course” epiphany that the pain and suffering of the allegedly immoral out-group is both codified and glorified in much religious schemata.

So, what to do?

To begin with, it might be worth exploring the messages of universal compassion that punctuate many religious texts, and try to understand the tensions between the injunctions to “love thy enemy,” for example, versus the lusty anticipation for violent vindication against one’s antagonists.

Secondly, it makes me very curious to explore the work that has been done on biological correlates of forgiveness. Presumably our brains have an override system to the disposition toward enjoyment of opponents’ sufferings. The conditions under which these more gracious neural networks become engaged is an interesting question.

Thirdly, open up and let the women in! If 50% of the population is more naturally disposed toward empathic rather than vindictive responses for those who have done them wrong, then shouldn’t we want them to share equally–if not preferentially–in the collective spiritual leadership?

Lastly, I think that the results point toward the need for a cooperative, cosmopolitan aesthetic in the global community. It is much easier to maintain a blanket perception of default immorality for an out-group population with whom you have little to no interaction. If, however, you are constantly working with and playing with an individual who treats you with kindness and fairness, it is much harder to maintain an antipathetic perception of the would-be “other.”

In summary, the ongoing examination of our human nature with the enhanced precision of scientific inquiry promises to clarify how our world and our institutions have evolved to their current arrangements. Further, the widespread cognizance of our dispositions may ultimately expand our consciousness of the attitudes and behaviors that shape our social landscape. And in that expanded consciousness, perhaps we may access critical leverage points that will shift the collective discourse toward one of increasing equanimity and prosocial values. Idealistic? Perhaps. But the alternative?…

Indeed, I hear the sagely injunction of Delphi rippling through the unfolding saga of our shared humanity: know thyself.

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  1. Michael — bravo, a cogent commentary. Would love to repost this on the new “” page when it’s up. R U Game? (With all due credit of course!)

    • permalink

      Hi, Dr. Greenstein. That sounds great. Give me a holler when you’re ready to repost it. Thanks.

  2. Amen, brother.

  3. Thanks Michael. I’m also interested in the evolutionary advantages that may have been gained from pleasure at deserved comeuppances. These rewards probably were key to certain groups’ survival and flourishing as well.

  4. Great post Michael! Ironically, I just read this tonight as well

    Additional insight into the function (or dysfunction) of empathy.

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