August 14, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 20

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    New study shows children are hard-wired for empathy

    By William Harms
    News Office

    When children see an image of a person in pain, portions of their brain register that pain on a fMRI scan. When the children see a person intentionally hurt, portions of the brain associated with moral reasoning are also activated.

    Children between the ages of 7 and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain, according to researchers who used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans to study responses in children.

    Their responses were similar to those found in studies of adults. The fMRI scans detected that children also show responses to seeing someone in pain in the same areas of their brains. The research also found that additional areas of the brain, those connected with moral reasoning, are activated when youngsters see a person intentionally hurt by another individual.

    “This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else,” said Jean Decety, Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry, who reported the findings in the journal article, “Who Caused the Pain? An fMRI Investigation of Empathy and Intentionality in Children.”

    Co-authors of the study, which appears in the current issue of Neuropsychologia, are University students Kalina Michalska and Yuko Aktsuki.

    The programming for empathy is something that is “hard-wired” into the brains of normal children and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing, said Decety. Understanding the brain’s role in responding to pain can help researchers understand how brain impairments influence anti-social behavior, such as bullying, he explained.

    For their research, the team showed 17 typically developed children, ages 7 to 12, animated photos of people experiencing pain, either received accidentally or inflicted intentionally. The researchers used three photographs of two people, in which only their right hands or right feet were visible. A test group of nine girls and eight boys were shown animations of these images while undergoing fMRI scans. They also were shown pictures without pain and animations in which people helped someone alleviate pain.

    “Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people in pain in children was associated with increased hemodynamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of first-hand experience of pain, including the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray and supplementary motor area,” Decety wrote.

    However, when the children saw animations of someone intentionally hurt, the regions of the brain engaged in social interaction and moral reasoning (the temporo-parietal junction, the paracigulate, orital medial frontal cortices and amygdala) also were activated.

    The study, which the National Science Foundation supported, provides new insights about children’s perceptions of right and wrong and how their brains process information, Decety said. “Although our study did not tap into explicit moral judgment, perceiving an individual intentionally harming another person is likely to elicit the awareness of moral wrongdoing in the observer,” he wrote.

    Subsequent interviews with the children showed they were aware of wrongdoing in the animations in which someone was hurt. “Thirteen of the children thought that the situations were unfair, and they asked about the reason that could explain this behavior,” Decety said.