Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Empathy: "Hath not a Jew eyes? ..."

A recent article in ScienceDaily, "Less Empathy Toward Outsiders: Brain Differences Reinforce Preferences For Those In Same Social Group" (July 1, 2009) reports that
... perceiving others in pain activates a part of the brain associated with empathy and emotion more if the observer and the observed are the same race. The findings may show that unconscious prejudices against outside groups exist at a basic level.

The study confirms an in-group bias in empathic feelings, something that has long been known but never before confirmed by neuroimaging technology
Published in the Journal of Neuroscience,
... the finding raises as many questions as it answers, Farah said. "For example, is it racial identity per se that determines the brain's empathic response, or some more general measure of similarity between self and other?" she said. "What personal characteristics or life experiences influence the disparity in empathic response toward in-group and out-group members?"
One can think of a few, including slightly dissimilar facial expressions. The researchers chose race as the characteristic to study, but race is rarely a category by itself. It is bound up with class, status, lifestyle expectations, history, and culture. Some other, more tightly specified, category may have been more informative.

Remember Shylock's wrenching plea in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice?

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

- From The Merchant of Venice (III, i, 60-63)
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


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