Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Hey, buddy!  Want out?

Scientists spend a lot of time figuring out how to test things that are impalpable, like the deep patterns in the limbic brain.  Some might be physical, dependent on some small cell or curl of flesh.  Others might simply be assumptions about the nature of the world that one learned in infancy.  So the psych folks, not all of them shrinks, run people through the fMRI, ask them questions, use various smoke and mirror techniques.  But sometimes nothing will do but to test a rat.  How do you question a rat?  With behavior.

Peggy Mason, a highly qualified professor of neurobiology at the U of Chicago who offers an open online course “Understanding the Brain: the Neurobiology of Everyday Life” through coursera (https://www.coursera.org/course/neurobio).  Her blog is at http://thebrainsocool.com

Peggy Mason and hooded rat friend

In the attempt to understand “empathy” -- understanding what another creature is feeling and addressing that helpfully -- Mason and her co-conspirators put a rat in a rat-sized tube of plexiglas that it couldn’t open from inside and then put another rat in the same larger space.  The tube was in the middle, which meant that the outside rat already had to violate its protocol, since rats like to stay on the boundaries.  In fact, if you have rat traffic in a building, a “black light” will reveal their trails by making their pee florescent --  always along the walls. 

So the rat in the tube wants out, the second rat sees that, and being a good-hearted rodent goes over to see how to get him out.  And does.  Then they run off together.  Not necessarily a hetero pair and not for sex.  Here’s the kicker: the rat will only release a rat that looks like rats he was raised with.  An albino rat won’t release a hooded rat unless he was raised with them.  But if he grew up with only hooded rats, he won’t release albino rats.

Social cohesion holds groups together by getting their emotional states in sync.  The eventual impact of this on the others outside the group is not considered here.  The study is about the emotional sharing called empathy, one-on-one.  Without empathy the result might be a shrug or targeted cruelty.  Think homeless on the streets. 

Prob'ly just spend it on booze.

The interaction between an emotional state and its expression in muscles and the functions of the autonomic nervous system is two-way.  Put on a happy face and one’s mood may lift.  Surprised or embarrassed and your face, if it is pale enough, is likely to change color.  I once had a black counselor who would remark with laughter at how much my face blanched or blushed.  These are the kinds of clues we pick up on as empathic observers.

What prevents people from experiencing empathy or acting to help a person in distress?   Being upset and in trouble oneself.  But helping the other who is in distress, one’s own feelings improve.  Sadly, not everyone realizes this.  “Emotional contagion” is not a universal response.  It appears that it is learned in childhood through interaction with family, whether or not the family is genetically related.

Family secrets

Another experiment is designed for both chimps and children.  An experimenter puts an object in the reach of the subject but out of his own reach.  He or she shows desire for the object trying to get it and failing.  Chimps handed over the object about 40% of the time.  Human infants (infants!) handed over the object 60% of the time.  It’s pretty difficult to discover whether this is because of the brain structures for empathy are missing or whether they were simply never developed by group identification that would lead to practice of helping others.  (“Please pass the butter.”)  Some of the specific brain parts and paths are known because of fMRI studies.

There is a phenomenon called “down-regulation” which is when the helper has learned to block empathy for the distress of others.  This is helpful to people vulnerable to excessive social distress and anxiety, leading them to withdraw to their own safe group and place.  But it also is a response of professionals who must cause distress, for instance, medical people who give shots and so on.  

Think of this in terms of cops or soldiers, who trouble us so much when their “down-regulation” is so thorough that they only have empathy for “their own kind” or -- as they put it -- “the man on my left and the man on my right.”  It will take work for them to bond with female soldiers if they have down-regulated in gender terms.  Cops who have down-regulated too far will use force even on children.  It isn’t righteous or rational -- just a survival mechanism in a group that must expose themselves to danger.

The whole point of empathy is to cause groups to form, because they protect the individual and make shared projects possible.  But it is probably a biological accident that this means like-bonding-to-like, whether all Irish sticking together or criminals having each other’s backs or HIV sufferers forming a political block -- though that’s a bit more problematic because it’s hard to tell who belongs by looking, which is why they need that red ribbon loop.  Maybe the success of zebras is due to their strong ability to recognize each other.

Group identification has been experimentally formed by giving people such small clues as eye color or wrist bands.  When nice college kids are divided into mock “guards” and “prisoners,” the experiment can cause the more powerful group to “down-regulate” to the point that the experiment has to be stopped.

The Lucifer Effect

But it is possible for the prefrontal cortex functions of justice, protection, and higher goals, to curb personal distress enough to manage behavior.  A comrade who is plainly distressed by over-reactive behavior due to down-regulated empathy may cause enough competing empathy for the more empathic comrade to become aware of what he or she is doing enough to become rational, realizing that an action is not really wanted.  Once, in a classroom situation, I became so angry at a defiant student that I was on the verge of striking him.  Another student cried out, “Stop, Mrs. Scriver!” and it worked.  I was literally stopped, frozen, my brain slowly coming back online.  In fact, the whole class realized that they weren’t powerless and their social anxiety diminished.  The girl who cried out was a teacher’s daughter, less anxious about challenging a category she didn’t consider quite so threatening.

Most of the time we see each other “through a glass darkly,” esp. if "they" look different, but sometimes it seems as though someone distant or submerged approaches us until we can read their faces.  Media stories sympathetic to the "other" help.  But survival anxiety -- constant fear of losing one’s home or having enough food, being able to cope with diseases or pressure at work -- can set up “fear contagion” and “down-regulation” that makes us willing to accept behavior that erodes our solidarity until we find ourselves at war.

Anonymity drives group callousness.

This way of thinking makes it easier to understand those among us who have no empathy -- maybe their limbic system lacks that ability, maybe there is no rational control in the prefrontal cortex, maybe their bonded group is too small, maybe they are just too anxious to be conscious.  We need their “black boxes” for more study.  Clearly they are trapped in there.  We might not be willing to release them, but empathy would let us enter their world if we can keep our own distress under control.

"Black Box" was a tv series.
The neuroscientist is on the right.

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