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Researchers used brain imaging to study empathetic reactions and found that our ability to identify with another person dramatically changes how much we’re willing to help them. “We think this is really interesting because it suggests mechanisms by which we can enhance our empathy and altruistic motivation simply by finding ways in which we have commonality across individuals and across groups,” says Joan Chiao. (Credit: iStockphoto)

NORTHWESTERN (US)—Race matters on a neurological level when it comes to empathy for others in distress, according to a new study.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study empathetic reactions. The findings show that African-Americans showed greater empathy for African-Americans facing adversity—in this case for victims of Hurricane Katrina—than Caucasians demonstrated for Caucasian-Americans in pain.

The take home point, says the study’s author Joan Chiao, is that our ability to identify with another person dramatically changes how much we can feel the pain of another and how much we’re willing to help them. Details are reported in the journal NeuroImage.

Initially, Chiao thought that both African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans would either show no pattern of in-group bias or both show some sort of preference.

“We found that everybody reported empathy and showed increased neural response within brain regions associated with empathy toward the Hurricane Katrina victims,” says Chiao, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

“But African-Americans additionally showed greater empathic response to other African-Americans in emotional pain. And this enhanced or extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation for ingroup members was associated with increased neural activity within a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex.”

The more African-Americans identified as African-American the more likely they were to show greater empathic preference for African-Americans, the study showed.

Chiao says that feeling of shared experience can lead to what she describes as extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation. “It’s empathy and altruistic motivation above and beyond what you would do for another human.”

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the study included an equal number of African-American and Caucasian-American study participants. They were shown pictures depicting either African-American or Caucasian-American individuals in a painful (i.e. in the midst of a natural disaster) or neutral (attending an outdoor picnic).

“We think this is really interesting because it suggests mechanisms by which we can enhance our empathy and altruistic motivation simply by finding ways in which we have commonality across individuals and across groups,” says Chiao.

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