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Do shared circuits help?

Does empathy help?

It is often assumed that more empathy automatically translates into more helping, but direct causal evidence is lacking. In this project, scientists developed experimental tasks to investigate the link between brain activity involved in perceiving the emotions of others (pain in particular) and helping behavior. Results show that when we witness someone in pain, we activate part of the brain circuit that is normally recruited when we are in pain ourselves. A normal functioning of this circuit is necessary for tuning ourselves into how much pain the other feels and proportionally decide to help. The same circuit is also more recruited when we freely decide to hurt others, and less when we are ordered to do so, suggesting that the strength of activity of the pain observation network relates to how much we are involved in the situation and feel responsible for the pain of others. Further results from the performed studies suggest that empathy is not just an inborn fixed trait, but a flexible response to the situation offered by the environment that we may voluntarily modulate.

The research performed during the period of this VIDI grant is further helping the field of neuroscience in developing techniques to non-invasively modulate brain activity for regions that are far from the brain surface. This will be of importance in that brain stimulation is necessary to help further refining our understanding of the functions of the brain, and currently available techniques only allow stimulation of superficial areas.

One of the problems the scientific community faces is the inability to prove that a manipulation did not work. For instance, currently the most widely used statistical methods can only determine when a pharmacological treatment works, but they are not able to conclude that such a treatment does not work. This limits the progress of our knowledge, and results in a bias in publishing only results that support our hypothesis. The work performed through the grant contributed to the dissemination of analysis and statistical tools that will help the scientific community to reduce this bias and bring evidence if favor of the absence of an effect.