Analytic Thinking Blocks Empathy, and Vice Versa

An fMRI study suggests that thinking logically keeps us from understanding how others might feel, while thinking about feelings inhibits our ability to reason.

As well as going a long way to explaining the traditional divide between the artsman and the engineer, the implications for security are clear: if someone’s trying to stir up emotions where rationality would be more appropriate, perhaps it’s because they’re using it as cover to pull a fast one.

Conversely, this also suggests why brilliant people can produce plans and organizations that are absolutely horrible for the people that live under them.

Caveat is nobody’s reproduced these results yet. I’m inclined to believe them, out of personal experience: I observed a similar effect some time ago, that doing a bit of engineering design every day builds up bullshit resistance.

“When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis, a pivotal study led by a Case Western Reserve University researcher shows.

How could a CEO be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made?

When the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed.

At rest, our brains cycle between the social and analytical networks. But when presented with a task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathway, the researchers found.

The study shows for the first time that we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at the same time […]

The new study shows that adults presented with social or analytical problems – all external stimuli – consistently engaged the appropriate neural pathway to solve the problem, while repressing the other pathway. The see-sawing brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging.[…]

The researchers recruited 45 healthy college students, and asked each to take five 10-minute turns inside a magnetic resonance imager. Meanwhile, the researchers randomly presented them with 20 written and 20 video problems that required them to think about how others might feel and with 20 written and 20 video problems that required physics to solve.

After reading the text or viewing the video, the students had to provide an answer to a yes-no question within seven seconds. Each student’s session in the MRI included twenty 27-second rest periods, as well as variable delays between trials lasting 1, 3 or 5 seconds. Students were told to look at a red cross on the screen in front of them and relax during the rests.

The MRI images showed that social problems deactivated brain regions associated with analysis, and activated the social network. This finding held true whether the questions came via video or print. Meanwhile, the physics questions deactivated the brain regions associated with empathizing and activated the analytical network.

“When subjects are lying in a scanner with nothing to do, which we call the resting state, they naturally cycle between the two networks,” Jack said. “This tells us that it’s the structure of the adult brain that is driving this, that it’s a physiological constraint on cognition.”

The finding has bearings on a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders, from anxiety, depression and ADHD to schizophrenia – all of which are characterized by social dysfunction of some sort, Jack said. “Treatment needs to target a balance between these two networks. At present most rehabilitation, and more broadly most educational efforts of any sort, focus on tuning up the analytic network. Yet, we found more cortex dedicated to the social network.”

Perhaps most clearly, the theory makes sense in regards to developmental disabilities such as autism and Williams syndrome. Autism is often characterized by a strong ability to solve visuospatial problems, such as mentally manipulating two and three-dimensional figures, but poor social skills. People with Williams syndrome are very warm and friendly, but perform poorly on visuospatial tests.

But, even healthy adults can rely too much on one network, Jack said. A look at newspaper business pages offers some examples.

“You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business,” he said. “But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking.”

“You’ll never get by without both networks,” Jack continued. “You don’t want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time.””


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