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When disaster strikes others: How your brain responds

Empathy and coping in the wake of a disaster

Aftermaths of disasters, both those caused by human action and those caused by nature, have untold psychological effects. Media coverage of these events documents, sometimes for days on end, the human toll of nature's wrath. Why are people so likely to stay glued to the news media during these times of crisis? Are we all basically rubberneckers at heart who watch these crises with a kind of sadistic voyeurism? Research on the brain regions triggered when watching other people who are in trouble suggests a very different interpretation. These events draw our attention because they trigger our very deepest sense of compassion.

Being the direct target of a threat to our well-being stimulates the amygdala, a small structure located in a primitive part of the brain known as the limbic system. If the earth starts shaking beneath you, a panic button in the amygdala is switched on and preparations start within your body to deal with the emergency. Your ability to handle the emergency will depend on many factors, but all other things being equal, the outcome will depend on how well you can cope psychologically.

If the success of disaster movies is any indication, we seem to enjoy practicing the coping mechanisms that get us through our own emergencies. Hollywood certainly is able to prey on our fascination with violent and widespread destruction. Though critically trounced, the movie 2012 was a huge box office success. If you haven't seen it, to make a long story short, almost everyone in the world is swallowed up into the melting top layer of the earth except the central characters in John Cusack's family. Yes, there is death on a grand scale, but the plot offers numerous decision points in which the movie's main characters make key choices about how to survive (though Amanda Peet's character as the wife seems to spend much of the movie whimpering helplessly).

It's these decision points that are perhaps the most psychologically engaging in watching a disaster movie. What would we do to survive in a disaster? Would we make the right choices that would preserve our lives or would we fail to see the way out and perish? Watching the heroes make the right decisions also provides what psychologists call "vicarious reinforcement." When you see another person succeed at a nearly impossible task, you feel more self- confident about your own ability to succeed if you were in that situation.

Observing a true disaster as it unfolds also stimulates our vicarious coping methods. We wonder what we would do if a wall of water started to come toward us at nearly inescapable speed. It's very likely that thousands of lives are actually saved through vicarious coping. If you've seen news stories in which people survive a hurricane by evacuating in time, should a hurricane threaten your home, you'll be more likely to get out quickly and not wait it out.

Many news stories of disasters focus on individual victims to bring the vastness of the destruction down to human terms. In so doing, they enlist our empathic responses. To varying degrees, we feel sad and anguished as we witness the pain and suffering of the victims.

Areas of the brain responsible for pain and empathyResearch shows that when we see others being harmed, our brains react in similar ways as if we were being harmed. The areas of the brain involved in this reaction extend beyond the amygdala to regions of the cortex involved in analyzing and interpreting the behavior of others, the so-called "theory of mind." These events also stimulate us to think of our own experiences of pain or trauma; in other words, our "autobiographical memory" (Spreng & Mar, 2010). We remember the times when we were in danger or in pain and our brain, in a sense, reaches out and imagines how the actual victims are thinking and feeling.

Real-life situations that should trigger empathy, such as watching a person being victimized in a crime, don't often motivate us to action. Research on the bystander effect shows that in the wrong circumstances we can be oddly insensitive to the suffering of others. However, what neuroscientists are showing is that rather than being programmed to ignore other people who are in pain, our brains are capable of bringing that pain poignantly home.

In the weeks following a disaster, news stories eventually shift away from covering the stories of destruction to occasional reports of the continued suffering of victims. We certainly saw this happen in the case of the Haitian earthquake. I suppose it's natural that the media can spend only so long on one tragedy until politics, celebrity meltdowns, or the news about the economy grab the headlines. However, the victims still need our help. You may not be able to maintain your brain's neural circuitry of empathy either, so if you're going to provide assistance, do it sooner rather than later. Social media, such as twitter and Facebook, offer important tools to provide support.

The tragedies that befall others, through natural or human causes, do change us in important ways. Our autobiographical memories accumulate experiences that shape the way our brains respond empathically to the suffering of other people.

When disaster strikes others, you can take advantage of these strategies to enhance your own emergency responses:

1. Decide on how you want to help. Make a plan to provide concrete assistance, possibly organizing others in a joint effort. Here are some suggestions from a "psychological first aid kit."

2. Learn from the successful actions of others. If you're the type of person who figures you can weather out a storm or drive through a flooded street, reconsider the wisdom of these poor coping strategies. You'll be more likely to survive should you be in that situation.

3. Take it personally. There is a tendency for observers to assume that bad things will never happen to them. When witnessing the disasters that befall other people, remember that you might be next. Figure out how you would survive.

4. Avoid the bystander effect. I've discussed in a previous post the way to resist being a passive observer when you could intervene to help. By doing your best to help others in need, you won't spend the rest of your life filled with regret.

5. Teach empathy to others. Social critics worry that exposure to disasters in the news makes us more callous rather than more empathic. Promote greater sensitivity by bringing events on a grand scale down to a human level.

You may feel frustrated, anguished and saddened by the news of disasters, but through empathy and coping, you can respond adaptively.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011


Spreng, R.N., Mar, R.A., I remember you: A role for memory in social cognition and the functionalneuroanatomy of their interaction, Brain Res. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2010.12.024

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