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The role of the Anterior Insula in compassion

Posted on December 10, 2012 at 7:23 PM Comments comments (96)
Social emotions in social neuroscience: From emotion contagion to empathy and fairness (from 0:43:54) presented by Tania Singer from the University of Zurich at the 2012

Emotional contagion. Empathy. Theory of mind. 

Empathy is different from emotion contagion.  When we are empathic we are aware that the emotion that we experience is carried vicariously for the other, that they are the source of our affective state. A self-other distinction is important in the experience of empathy. In the case of emotion contagion we are unaware of the source of our emotion. All mammals exhibit emotion contagion.

Empathy is also different from cognitive perspective taking or "Theory of mind", which is a cognitive empathy. When we have "theory of mind" we have an abstract concept of the other person, we aware of the others'  thoughts but we don't share the affective state with the other person.  The brain circuits underlying these two routes to the understanding of the other are very different. In psychopathy the affective empathy missing.

Sympathy and compassion

Sympathy is feeling sorry that someone is experiencing a negative emotion, but not experiencing that emotion with the other. Sympathy can have a condescending aspect to it, it comes from a one-up position. Compassion is the appreciation that we are all on the same level, a deep understanding of connectivity and of the sameness of everyone. Compassion has a motivational element - wanting to help relieve the other of suffering.

There is an ontogenetic and phylogenetic sequencing between emotional contagion, empathy and compassion, which leads to prosocial behaviour. Emotion contagion developmentally precedes emotion and compassion. (Singer, 2006, Neuroscience behaviour review). Emotion regulation capacity, which reliant on the prefrontal cortex is related to the ability to understand another person. Young children have an "ego-centricity bias" that is they tend to be influenced by their own emotional state when judging the emotional state of another - they project their emotions onto the other. The prefrontal cortex allows us to inhibit our own emotional state and to come to an accurate understanding of the other as different from us (PFC is still being developed up to the age of 25 years old.)

There is an overlap activation in the anterior part of the Insula in experiencing a bad smell and watching someone experience a bad smell. There are also shared networks in the domain of pain for self and others. Researchers worked this out by observing couples. People who were asked to watch their partner experience pain showed the same brain activation in the Anterior Insula (AI) and Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) as when they themselves experienced pain. (Singer, 2004, Science) 

The theory about the neuro-function of this activity

the Insula is the interoceptive cortex, which has the function of looking into the condition of your body, registering how you feel. The better the interoceptive awareness of one person the higher the size of the AI and the activity in the AI. Singer suggests that we we use representations of our own feeling state to make a model about what other people feel. To test this she turned to looking at the brains of people of Aperger's Syndrome and Alexithymia to investigate whether people who show deficits in understanding their own internal state also show deficits in interoceptive awareness and in the empathic understanding of another.

Alexithymia is characterized as a sub-clinical phenomenon, marked by difficulty in identifying and describing feelings and a tendency to focus on external events rather than inner experiences. Alexythimia is thought to characterize 10% of the typically-developing population. The estimated prevalance rate among patients wiht Asperger Syndrom is around 60-80%. Patients with ASD have a deficient in cognitive perspective taking. 

The results show that people who have a deficit in understanding their own emotions also have deficits in understanding the emotions of others - and there is a lack of activation in AI. Empathy training may concentrate first on training interoceptive awareness in the self. 

The results show that autism is not per se associated with a lack of empathy. It depends on the degree of alexythimia. Adolescents with Conduct Disorders have less grey matter volume in the AI, and show less empathy. (Sterzer et al., 2006) 

Modulating factors of empathy

Empathy is modulated by the intensity of emotions (love, hatred), relationship (familiarity, similarity, affective link), context (appraisal of the situation) as well as the gender, personality traits and emotional repertoire of the person who is empathizing. (Viznemont and Singer, 2006, TICS)

Empathy is modulated by fairness (Singer, 2006, Nature). We resonate with the pain of someone we like and are familiar with and less with someone we don't like or are unfamiliar with. We resonate with the pain of someone from our own group more. Fairness based motivation predicts revenge but compassion motivation doesn't produce the same pattern. Could we use compassion and equanimity training to reduce the incidence of conflict?

Singer wants to experiment with biofeedback - by showing subjects images of their activated insula and getting them to focus on increasing the activity in this part of the brain. She also wants to investigate the effect of compassion training on overall wellbeing. 

Cooperation and fairness

Both fairness and compassion based motivation can support cooperation in the case of positive reciprocity, that is when someone responds to fairness with fairness. Fairness based motivation leads to a breakdown in cooperation manifested as a a desire for revenge and punishment when norms are being violated. Punishment is somewhat helpful in maintaining cooperation in the case of lack of fair-play.

In compassion based motivation - generosity and forgiveness can counteract a desire for revenge buffer the decline into tit-for-tat pattern. (Batson and Ahmad, 2001). However those who are compassionate may be exploited, so some training in fairensess based motivation is important.

The affective states underlying fariness are fear and anger and underlying compassion are love and wish for the others' well-being. They have different impact on health.

Research into the brain of a psychopath

Posted on November 26, 2012 at 11:58 AM Comments comments (97)
BBC News Health online article by Matthew Taylor: Psychopaths: Born evil or with a diseased brain?

The article presents the work of neuroscientist Dr Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico who travels across prisons in the USA scanning the brains of people with custodial sentences for serious offences such as rape or murder. He sees psychopaths not as evil, but as people who suffer from a disorder of brain function.