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Gazzola Group

Biological basis of emotions

About the Gazzola Group

When we see a little girl falling from her bike, why do most of us instinctively run to help and comfort her?

Years of research show that one of the reasons why we help other people is because their suffering activates brain regions that are also active when we ourselves are hurt. The pain of the child with her bleeding knee becomes our own pain. Helping the girl now becomes a way to sooth what is now our pain. A similar contagion happens for other emotions as well: we rejoice with our friend when we watch her crossing the finish line of her first marathon.
In some circumstances the decision to help is less readily made, but requires a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of the action we decide to take. For instance, if you are late for an important job interview, and you see the mother also running toward the child, you might decide to keep on going instead. This is because you have quickly calculated the benefits for the other against the costs for yourself, and found that the costs of helping (high probability of not getting the coveted new job) in this case are higher than the benefits to the other (comforting a child you do not know while her mom will soon arrive).

Some of the core questions my lab currently investigates are: What areas of the brain cause us to act prosocially? How does the brain weigh the benefits to self and the cost to others? How do we learn the consequences our actions have on others? When we hit someone he will likely be in pain. How does this make us learn that hitting people is bad? Why do psychopathic individuals fail to acquire these moral sentiments? Does the activation of our own pain brain regions while witnessing the other wince in pain play a critical role in that learning?

In order to answer these questions, we synergize brain imaging tools such as 3T and 7T fMRI and EEG, and neuro-modulation tools, such as TMS and tDCS.

Valeria Gazzola:

‘When we see someone in physical pain, our brain mirrors this pain and we, too, feel the pain in that same spot. Purely emotional pain is also contagious – but not for everyone. We know that, in psychopaths, the brain circuits that process the emotions of others generate less spontaneous activity than is the norm. But if you ask these people to act empathically, that activity does tend to normalize. What does that mean? How do these brain circuits influence our attention and motivation, and what is the relationship between motivation and spontaneous activity?

‘In one of our studies we had people choose the amount of money they would get in relation to the degree of pain someone else suffered. Some always went for the maximum amount of money, others chose to receive less money if that meant someone else did not suffer so much pain. A third group chose to get no money at all if it meant the other person did not have to suffer pain at all. That last, most prosocial, choice, was made by people who felt the other’s pain the keenest. The middle group, the normal group, was a bit of a mixed bag.

‘In fact we are dealing with daily dilemmas: while you are racing on your bike to be on time for an important meeting you see someone take a nasty fall. What do you do? Do you stop to help, or do you cycle on? Why do some people stop and others race past? That is what I would like to know. Empathy may seem to be an automatic reaction, but it is not necessarily innate. Children have to be taught that play can cause pain. But is this something you can only learn during a certain period of your life? Or can it still be learned at a later age? What I think is that experience plays a big part here, because empathy is a learning system.

‘Another interesting aspect of empathy is synchronization. Using our limbs, faces and voices in the same way makes it easier to understand one another. You see this in mutual rituals, large gatherings, and full stadiums. That empathic synchronization transports people to a totally different state of being: they transcend from being individuals to becoming components of group dynamics. Such groups as a whole have a personality of their own: its members are as one, and there are no individuals.

‘If I want to know what a specific brain area contributes to certain behaviour, I have to be able to specifically stimulate that area. So far I have mostly been using TMS for my research, but that does not work so well in terms of reaching the areas that are situated deeper inside the brain. And if it does work, the cortex, which is situated above it, is activated, which disrupts the results of the measurements.

‘There is now growing evidence that ultrasound, a non-invasive method, can be used to stimulate specific areas. We are currently testing ultrasound in animals, and we hope to be able to eventually apply this method to humans as well. That would make it easier to establish which areas are involved in the first emotional experiences that play a part in prosocial behaviour.’

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