Can you train your brain to be KIND?
Blade Runner-style ’empathy workout’ could make you more altruistic
• Brazilian researchers mapped the brains of 25 participants
• They used brain scanners to detect patterns of activity created by empathy
• It is the first time the complex emotions of the feeling have been plotted
• Once they’d established a pattern, they asked people to hold the emotion
• Scans revealed it is possible to teach your brain to be more altruistic
By Victoria Woollaston
A lack of empathy is a common trait among psychopaths, but the complex nature of the emotion has baffled scientists for years.
Now, researchers from Brazil have not only mapped the areas of the brain affected when we experience feelings of empathy – they’ve also found a way to increase it.
Using a combination of brain scans and emotional feedback techniques, they were able to help participants focus on, and develop, feelings of affection and tenderness.
Researchers from Brazil have mapped the areas of the brain affected when we experience feelings of empathy, pictured. Using these patterns, and a combination of brain scans and emotional feedback techniques, they were able to help participants develop feelings of affection and tenderness
It is the first time empathetic feelings across the whole brain have been identified using scans. Previous studies have only focused on single brain regions related to specific emotions.
THE VOIGHT-KAMPFF MACHINE
The Voigt-Kampff machine was originally referenced in Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
It later appeared, known as the Voight-Kampff machine, in the 1982 screen adpatation of the book, called Blade Runner.
The Voight-Kampff is a fictional polygraph-style machine used in the book and film to determine if someone is human, or an android replicant.
It measures reactions, including respiration, heart rate and eye movement, in response to emotionally provocative questions.
It is an advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body.
The machine is often called an empathy-detector because feelings of empathy separate humans from androids.
In Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s science fiction book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, a similar empathy-detection device were used to measure tenderness or affection felt towards others.
Called the Voight-Kampff machine, it was used to distinguish humans from replicants, or androids.
To map empathetic feelings, the Brazilian team began by scanning the brains of 25 participants while asking them emotionally-charged questions.
Each participant was asked to identify a memory that was important to them, in which they felt feelings of empathy.
They were also asked to think of a time they felt proud, and to have ‘neutral’ thoughts without any emotion.
Professor Jorge Moll, from the D’Or Institute for Research and Education in Rio De Janeiro, then used computer software to identify patterns in the brain activity linked to each of these emotions.
In the 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, a similar empathy-detection device was used to measure tenderness or affection felt towards others. Called the Voight-Kampff machine, pictured with Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, it is used to distinguish humans from replicants
WHAT IS EMPATHY?
Empathy is the ability to understand or imagine the depth of another person’s feelings.
It differs from sympathy, which implies pity but felt without considering the other person’s feelings.
Empathy comes from the German term Einfühlung, meaning to ‘feel as one with’.
It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for a person.
Once the software was trained to pick up on these patterns, the volunteers were asked to control and hold these thoughts and feelings.
During tests, each participant was shown a blurry image.
Moll then gave each person feedback about how strong their emotion was, based on the real-time brain scans and activity.
The more successfully each participant held and developed their feelings of empathy, the clearer the image became.
The people who were given feedback on their brain patterns were able to strengthen them, Moll’s team reports in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.
‘This demonstrates that humans can voluntarily enhance brain signatures of tenderness and affection, unlocking new possibilities for promoting prosocial emotions and countering antisocial behavior,’ they wrote.
Moll stressed that the technique needs further work before it can be used to help people with personality disorders and developmental conditions, such as autism.
A follow-up experiment will also look at how the brains of psychopaths differ.