Brain Food: Measuring Compassion and Empathy

Feb 1, 2018

We all react differently to seeing someone in distress. Some feel empathy. Some don’t. Some feel the pain so strongly they take it on as their own. Flagstaff social neuroscientist Chad Woodruff is trying to measure compassion and empathy by recording the activity of “mirror” or “social neurons” in the brain. 

“These mirror neurons help us to rapidly understand one another, so in the lab, we will record electrical brain activity while participants are looking at others feeling emotions, and we will see how much does this person’s brain respond to seeing others in emotional distress. And then we’ll also show them pictures of themselves expressing distressful emotions. And if the brain makes a big difference between whether the participant is looking at himself or another person, that participant tends to be good with empathy,” he says.

Not every human brain is wired to feel compassion, however. Woodruff says people with certain brain dysfunctions, including anti-social personality disorder, may not experience empathy within what is considered the normal range, or at all.

“One thing we are learning in psychological sciences is that a person’s behavior is not under any real sense of free control. That is, the person you are is not someone you chose to be, but rather something your brain, your genetics, your environment, your upbringing, all these things conspire to make you precisely who you are at this precise moment,” he says.

Woodruff believes his research helps identify conditions that promote—and demote—empathy, and may help us engineer more compassionate societies in the future.