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The London Riots: When the Empathic Brain Switches off

Normal people become rioters in London. Brain science tells us how

Normal people turn into ruthless rioters in London. Why?

Over the last week, London has been plagued by what are now called the first 'social network' riots. People go out in the streets because they read through Blackberry or Twitter, that their fellow rioters will hit this target. Overnight, the social networks that were the heroes of the Egyptian revolution have become the fuels of social unrest in Europe. Social networks give such riots a new level of coordination and speed. The question that remains, however, is why people would burn busses and kill people during such riots. Don't they care about the damage they do to others?

The Empathic Brain

Neuroscience over the last decade has deeply changed our understanding of why we care about other people. By measuring the brain activity of people while they have emotional experiences and while they view the emotions of others, it became clear that our own emotions get automatically triggered in the brain while we see those of others. When we see or imagine the pain of others in particular, we activate regions of the brain called the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that are normally activated when we feel pain ourselves. Through these systems, seeing the pain of others thus literally hurts. Most of us will have experienced this phenomenon: you see a dear one cut her finger and you can almost feel the pain in your own finger. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" becomes a biologically grounded and intuitive rule: if your brain makes hurting others hurt yourself, you will intuitively refrain from harming others. With such systems at work, you may wonder, why would anybody ever take pleasure in hitting a policemen or burning someone else's car?


Brain regions that make us share the pain (green) of others and regions that make us experience schadenfreude (red)

Empathy for Us, Schadenfreude for the Others.

Brain regions that make us share the pain (green) of others and regions that make us experience schadenfreude (red)

Empathy for Us, Schadenfreude for the Others.

In the experiments that lead to the discovery of the empathic nature of our brain, participants viewed pain being applied to people they didn't know or people they loved. Over decades, psychologists had however warned us that you relate much more to people you consider to belong to your group than to people you don't.

Recently, brain science has discovered just how deep this distinction runs in the brain. In an experiment run by Alessio Avenanti in Italy, white or black participants viewed a needle enter either a white or a black hand. Both groups showed a stronger pain response when viewing a member of their own race experience pain. In a later experiment by Tania Singer, football fans of two rivalling teams in Switzerland witnessed a fan of their own team receive electroshocks or a fan of the other team. The participants were then given a chance to take some of the electroshocks in the stead of these people. The team found three strong effects. First, participants' brain activity revealed that they had only shared the pain of fans of their own team - simply knowing that someone is a fan of another team is thus enough to shut down empathy for that persons pain. Second, they were willing to help fans of their own team 50% more often than fans of the other team. Finally, those participants that had a strong group-identity actually activated the nucleus accumbens (Nacc), a region normally activated when you get rewarded by, for instance, a monetary gain, when a fan of the other team got a shock - they seemed to experience Schadenfreude, i.e. joy at the pain of others.

The take home message of these experiments is simple: we have an empathic brain, but we seem to turn it off for people we consider different from us. What defines them as different, can be as obvious as the colour of their skin or as trivial as the football team they support.

Riots as a lack of empathy for the out-group

While we normally walk through the streets of our cities, we look at the people around us and see fellow citizens. We stop to help the old lady that dropped her grocery bag because our empathic brain makes us share her misfortune and makes us rejoice at her thankful face. If we get bombarded by messages emphasizing that we, the working class, are being taken advantage of by them, the middle class, this changes. If political decisions are perceived as suggesting that 'they', the goverment and police, do not care about 'us', this changes. 'They' become the outgroup. The stronger we seem to buy into this group distinction, the less our brain empathizes with 'them' and the more we experience Schadenfreude while burning their cars or harming the police... Empathy is a wonderful sentiment that biology had wired into our brains. We need to be aware, however, that a sense of social belonging is key to keep our brains empathic. Propaganda allowed the brain of Nazi's to be empathic with their children and ruthlessly cruel with the Jews. The social networks now turn empathic British citizens into cruel rioters that rejoice at the pain of the middle class and goverment.

Neuroscience would suggest that they key to prevent further unrest is to re-establish empathy by emphasizing that we are all in this crisis together. It will not be easy to do so, however, in an economical crisis that is rapidly widening the cleft between the classes. For the working class, its about losing their job. For the middle and upper class, it means not flying to the Caribbean's this autumn or losing some money when selling their house....

Further Readings: if you want to know more about what makes us empathic in the brain, look at the website of the book The Empathic Brain by Prof. Christian Keysers or buy the book in print at CreateSpace or as an eBook on Amazon. Read more about the research papers by Alessio Avenanti or Tania Singer.

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