Chronicles Digest

Targeting Empathy
Posted by Alan Flurry - August 28, 2015

Researchers in the department of psychology analyzing borderline personality disorder (BPD) have contributed something very interesting in conceptualizing the disorder's connections to empathy:

"Our results showed that people with BPD traits had reduced activity in brain regions that support empathy," said the study's lead author Brian Haas, an assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences psychology department. "This reduced activation may suggest that people with more BPD traits have a more difficult time understanding and/or predicting how others feel, at least compared to individuals with fewer BPD traits."

For the study, Haas recruited over 80 participants and asked them to take a questionnaire, called the Five Factor Borderline Inventory, to determine the degree to which they had various traits associated with borderline personality disorder. The researchers then used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity in each of the participants. During the fMRI, participants were asked to do an empathetic processing task, which tapped into their ability to think about the emotional states of other people, while the fMRI measured their simultaneous brain activity.

In the empathetic processing task, participants would match the emotion of faces to a situation's context. As a control, Haas and study co-author Joshua Miller also included shapes, like squares and circles, that participants would have to match from emotion of the faces to the situation.

Arguably the key to a civil society and healthy politics, not to mention successful personal relationships if these can even be separated, the ability to empathize symbolizes our human decency on every level. Its presence or lack determines our great progress or intractable strife, and as these perpetuate, it's easy to see how either can design and define a society. Perhaps the ability to measure and link feeling empathy to other disorders signals new inroads to a better understanding of how empathy develops. Terrific work from Hass, Miller and their team.

Image: Les petites baigneuses, 1879, by William-Adolph Bougereau, via wikimedia commons 

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