Is there an “empathy switch” in our brains? And is it possible that carefully crafted stories about disparate or adversarial groups might trigger more empathetic responses among audiences?

Recent neuroscience research is suggesting that there is a way to tell people’s stories and possibly narrow the “empathy gap” among different identity groups. While this work has largely involved racial and ethnic groups that have been historic enemies – Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, or European whites and Roma communities, for example – it offers some tantalizing possibilities about the roles that media narratives might play in generating greater understanding and acceptance among hostile groups, and possibly even help defuse longstanding ethnic tensions.

Jonathan Gibby 2011/Flicker
Source: Jonathan Gibby 2011/Flicker

Just as we exercise control on negative emotional stimuli to protect our well-being or distance ourselves from stressful events, we also seem to regulate our empathic responses to distress-related information about other people.

We know that stories about physical pain trigger activity in the same regions of the brain involved in actually experiencing or directly observing physical pain – what neuroscientists call the “extended pain matrix.” But stories about emotional suffering trigger activity in different areas of the brain – those associated with thinking about others’ thoughts. The amygdala, commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” threat-assessment center of the brain, appears to be associated with how we respond to others’ emotional pain, but not their physical pain.

In recent years, neuroscientists have explored how the brain shape our feelings of empathy. Our ability to recognize and consider other people’s feelings separate from our own is dependent on several interconnected regions of the brain, which researchers call the “theory-of-mind” network. But much less clear is how our brains process and assess other people’s emotional claims, and then how we decide to sympathize or not. “We need to figure out how these neural flashes translate into actual behavior: Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare? What is empathizing across groups so much more difficult? And what, if anything, can be done to change that calculus?” (Interlandi, 2015).

Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, is at the forefront of such empathy research. He has hypothesized that our brains, when confronted with members of other identity groups, generates an “empathy gap” and may limit our ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. This apparently has little to do with how empathetic we actually are. A key predictor of empathy, it turns out, is not any personality assessment, but the strength of our group identity. “The more an individual’s team affiliation resonated with them, the less empathy they were likely to express for members of the rival team,” Bruneau said, characterizing the results of a computer-based experiment that pitted random groups of people against each other. He said this tribal group affiliation response is encouraged everywhere in our daily lives. “People will cry for the suffering of one main character” in a movie, he said, “but then cheer for the slaughter of dozens of others” (Interlandi, 2015).

In a recent experiment that Bruneau and his colleagues designed to study the neural circuits responsible for deliberately regulating empathic responses to others’ pain and suffering, participants read stories about the physical pain of other individuals during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They exhibited activity in the “pain matrix” regions of their brains typically associated with physical pain and bodily sensations. This is to be expected. But when participants considered stories depicting others suffering from emotional pain, brain patterns changed: amygdala activity seemed linked to a de-activation of the brain’s pain matrix regions. This prompted the researchers to suggest that “the amygdala is a critical part of the network involved in marshaling empathic responses to others’ negative emotions” (2015, p. 116).

The researchers found an increase in activity in the amygdala when participants witnessed incidents of others’ emotional pain but decreased activity in response to examples of others’ physical pain. In previous research, Bruneau and colleagues found that brain regions that are sensitive to emotional pain were also de-activated by stories depicting increasing levels of physical pain (Bruneau et al., 2013). “An interesting possibility is that brain regions responding to others’ pain and suffering are not only distinct, but also potentially antagonistic,” the researchers concluded. “In other words, increasing concern for what is going on in another person’s mind (empathy for emotional suffering) might be aided by removing the distraction of attention towards what is going on in his or her body (physical sensations, even pain)” (2015, p. 117).

All this has potentially powerful implications for journalists and other public storytellers. Reporters are constantly seeking to “show, not tell” in their stories, using all kinds of writing strategies to paint a vivid picture for audiences. Too often, however, such storytelling – particularly concerning ethnic conflicts and political and racial tensions – fixate on the physical manifestations of strife, discomfort or pain. But the research of Bruneau and others suggest this approach may emphasize physical distress and consequently short-circuit empathetic responses by minimizing story subjects’ emotional suffering – something often much more difficult to capture.

News workers can be more mindful of the power of depictions of emotional suffering to evoke empathy among readers and viewers. But it is also helpful to have a strong sense of community and human connectedness that transcends the headlines. A recent moral psychology study of “exemplary” journalists and public relations practitioners widely respected for their ethical leadership suggested one commonality was an internalization of a broad concern for others. This internalization is a key feature of a “morally motivated self,” which stems from factors such as one’s moral development, the “moral ecology” in which one works, and personality traits. Psychology research has found that the degree of one’s empathy for others is not related to personality traits, for example (Wakabayashi & Kawashina, 2015), but media exemplars clearly demonstrate high empathic capacities, reflected in the priority placed on values such as respecting autonomy and promoting the welfare of others, minimizing harm, and having an enduring concern for social justice (Plaisance, 2014, p. 204).

More than ever, the value of storytelling in a world riven by divisions arguably may lie in its ability to generate empathy.


Bruneau, E.G., Dufour, N., & Saxe, R. (2013). How we know it hurts: Item analysis of written narratives reveals distinct neural responses to others’ physical pain and emotional suffering. PLoS One 8, e63085.

Bruneau, E.G., Jacoby, N., & Saxe, R. (2015). Empathic control through coordinated interaction of amygdala, theory of mind and extended pain matrix brain regions. NeuroImage 114, 105-119.

Interlandi, J. (2015, March 19). The brain’s empathy gap: Can mapping neural pathways help us make friends with our enemies? The New York Times Sunday Magazine, 50.

Plaisance, P.L. (2014). Virtue in media: The moral psychology of excellence in news and public relations. New York: Routlege.

Wakabayashi, A., & Kawashima, H. (2015). Is empathizing in the E-S theory similar to agreeableness? The relationship between the EQ and SQ and major personality domains. Personality and Individual Differences 76, 88-93.

About the Author

Patrick L. Plaisance Ph.D.

Patrick Lee Plaisance, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism and media communication at Colorado State University and is the Editor of the Journal of Media Ethics.

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