The science of heartlessness
Why are some people more -- or less -- sympathetic to others' pain?
Recent studies may have some answers
By Hannah Holmes
Feb 17, 2011
We've all encountered people with such divergent attitudes toward suffering -- and it often brings up a rather prickly question: Why are some of us bleeding hearts while others have hearts of stone? Science actually provides us with a number of clues.
A Dutch team, for example, has looked at how oxytocin, a hormone frequently associated with female reproduction, influences parenting styles. Dutch scientists watched as a bunch of mothers interacted with their two-year-old children, who were trying to solve a difficult puzzle. Some mothers were patient and helpful; others were not. And the not-so-helpful mothers were more likely to carry a particular version of the oxytocin receptor gene: Their "mommy chemical" system may have been set just a tad to the selfish side, slightly blinding them to the emotions of their children.
Now further studies are finding that oxytocin can increase the amount of money people will donate to a charity. One study in particular lent credence to the time honored method charities use to pull money from magazine readers: Feature a woebegone child in your advertisement. In the study, researchers had subjects watch a tearjerker film of a father talking about his son's brain tumor. They sampled subjects' blood before and after the film. Following the film the blood was awash in oxytocin, and their donations to charity rose 47 percent, compared to those of subjects who saw a film of the same father talking about a trip to the zoo. The tearjerker technique was more effective on women than men. Experiments wherein people sniff oxytocin to bolster the chemical in their brain show that the chemical may work in two ways. It may operate first by dampening our natural fear of one another. Oxytocin is very active in the amygdala, which monitors the world for danger. Extra oxytocin fights fear. Then, with that terror out of the way, perhaps it's easier to read another person's emotions and relate to them. People dosed with oxytocin make more direct eye contact, and they are better at describing the emotions portrayed on another's face. So extra oxytocin also helps us to empathize.
But humans have access to another brain system that raises sympathy, too. When you stick out your tongue at a baby, the baby will often stick its tongue out automatically. The motor region of the baby's brain is mirroring your own motor region. Our emotional regions also have a system that helps us to mirror another's feelings.