Empathetic Vibrations

Some say that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and findings by researcher Emile Bruneau would seem to affirm that impression. Bruneau, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, has long been concerned with conflict resolution, an interest that grew over the past two decades while he was living in tumultuous South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Sri Lanka. He is working now with Rebecca Saxe in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences to understand how conflict and empathy are manifested within the brain.

A paper by Bruneau, published in March, detailed a surprising finding. He recruited Israeli and Arab subjects, then took MRI scans of their brains while they read stories about the suffering of Israelis, Arabs, or a neutral and distant group, South Americans. He focused on the regions of the brain associated with the processing of emotional pain and found that both Israelis and Arabs showed similar brain activity when reading about members of their own group and members of the opposing group. But reading about pain in the neutral group had a markedly smaller effect.

Next Bruneau plans to turn his attention to “empathic failures,” specifically the ones that may be caused by a lack of information about those who are suffering. Ultimately he wants to be able “to image [via MRI] participants involved in conflict resolution programs before and after the intervention, to see if we can use it as a diagnostic of positive change.”

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Emily Ochoa is a freelance writer in New York City.


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