Higher order human emotions, such as compassion and admiration, are often cataloged as artifacts of culture. But a small new study that relies on scans of the brain suggests the opposite: these feelings are rooted deep within the brain, where basic traits like anger and fear reside.
That same area of the brain is also strongly interconnected with neural networks that regulate some of the body's most basic functions, such as breathing and blood pressure, which indicates that complex social emotions build on systems that evolved early, including those essential to our survival. "It is important to realize that they recruit the brain in a very deep manner," says Antonio Damasio, one of the authors of the study published online this week in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California (USC). "They recruit the brain in a way that older emotions do as well." (Read "How to Lift Your Mood: Try Smiling.)
While some previous research has examined how we process empathy for others' pain, this is the first study to trace the brain patterns of admiration, which Damasio notes is critical and commonly exercised. "We're constantly thinking about [whether or not we admire] people's behavior," he says. "How pleased were we when the sharpshooters got the pirates? That is a skill and we feel very proud of it."
Researchers think that the region in question, called the posteromedial cortices (PMC), also plays a role in the maintenance of consciousness and the construction of self of "I'm me and I'm here." The theory is that since social emotions are processed using the same systems, we are able to understand others by channeling their experiences through our own.
"Social emotions call up so much about your own episodic memory self and space and time," says co-author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an assistant professor of educational psychology at USC. "When all of those things are activated together, your memories, your plans for the future, it kind of converges at this center part of the brain."
But these feelings take time to bubble up. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track the brain activity of 13 subjects as they listened to different stories, each evoking a strong emotional reaction: compassion for physical pain, admiration of physical skill, compassion for emotional strife and admiration for moral strength. The volunteers reported feeling overwhelmed by their emotions during the course of the experiment which researchers verified by monitoring participants' heart and respiration rates. And the brain scans showed that while volunteers' recognition of another person's physical pain or skill was immediate, feelings like compassion and admiration took much longer to realize about four to six seconds.
So, what happens to complex social emotions in a modern society, where we exist amidst the flicker of Twitter tweets, Facebook updates, endless channel surfing and quick-cut news segments? A ticker headline or a personal story told through a Web feed may just evaporate too quickly to engender true compassion or admiration and that could potentially affect the moral development of younger generations.
"We should think about it," Immordino-Yang says. "We should research how these emotions develop in children and how social interaction may be changed when people are engaged in these very rapid fire networks."
The question is intriguing, but mere exposure to fast-moving media may be unlikely to disrupt such deep-rooted emotional responses ones that, as the study's brain scans show, are intertwined with vital physical functions. Indeed, the findings may even explain why powerful emotions can result in physical sensations. "If you think for a moment of how you react when you are in the presence of somebody you admire for example, Gandhi you feel something very deep," says Damasio. "It's not a little thing. It's something that cuts very deep in your person."
Brain scans also suggest that the recognition of physical skill or pain is distinct from the more complex responses of compassion and admiration for another's emotional anguish or success. When reacting to something physical, the parts of the brain that light up are associated with the regulation and sensation of our basic body structure, or musculoskeletal composition. For the more intricate emotions, the regions involved in keeping our organs, or viscera, pumping and running smoothly are brought on board.
"It's almost as if the poets had it right all the time," Immordino-Yang says. "These emotions are very visceral."