Academic Minute
5:00 am
Wed January 2, 2013

Dr. Anthony Jack, Case Western Reserve University – Empathy and Analytic Thought

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Anthony Jack of Case Western Reserve University explains why it’s hard to be analytical and empathetic at the same time.

Anthony Jack is an assistant professor of cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology at Case Western Reserve University where he is the principal investigator in the Brain, Mind, and Consciousness Lab.  The lab investigates high-level cognitive processes using brain imaging (fMRI), behavior and introspective reports. He holds a Ph.D. from University College London.

About Dr. Jack

Dr. Anthony Jack – Empathy and Analytic Thought

It used to be that brain imaging was mostly used to map cognitive processes – to identify brain areas activated by different cognitive tasks. But now, instead of looking at how our thoughts drive the brain, we are starting to understand how the brain constrains our thinking.

A decade ago, scientists discovered a large cortical network that broke the rules of brain mapping. Instead of being activated by typical tasks, this cortical network is deactivated – its’ function is suppressed. Studies have shown that this deactivation is associated with having a healthy mind – it happens less for people with autism, schizophrenia, ADHD, dementia, and those who are simply fatigued. But until a recent breakthrough, we weren’t sure what this network actually does. Now, we have identified tasks that push the brain in different directions.

Analytic tasks, like scientific reasoning, deactivate this network while activating a different set of brain regions. However, tasks that emotionally engage our social brains, like following along with a soap opera, activate this network and deactivate the analytic network. The bottom line is: our neural structure prevents us from being both analytic and empathetic, at least not in the same moment of time.

This finding sheds light on some phenomena that previously seemed mysterious. Why do doctors, bankers and scientists, professions that involve intensive analytic focus, often seem socially abrasive? Why do we think of logic as cold, and empathy as irrational? Now we know it is healthy to compartmentalize these two types of thinking, we can aim to have the best of both worlds by developing training programs that help people switch rapidly between them. Then we can all learn how to be both clever and kind. That is a trick a few people seem to have figured out for themselves, even some doctors, bankers and scientists.

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