Thursday, August 6, 2009

I feel your pain, but only if we share the same race

An interesting study by Xu et al. over at Peking University has further demonstrated an aspect of evolutionary development that we are trying so hard to escape in the present day world. Racial exclusion, especially when it comes to empathy, can negatively impact our attitudes and behaviors towards outgroups whether we're aware of it or not. Here is their abstract.

The pain matrix including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) mediates not only first person pain experience but also empathy for others' pain. It remains unknown, however, whether empathic neural responses of the pain matrix are modulated by racial in-group/out-group relationship. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging we demonstrate that, whereas painful stimulations applied to racial in-group faces induced increased activations in the ACC and inferior frontal/insula cortex in both Caucasians and Chinese, the empathic neural response in the ACC decreased significantly when participants viewed faces of other races. Our findings uncover neural mechanisms of an empathic bias toward racial in-group member.

Hopefully with further studies similar to this one we can come closer to figuring out how to train our seemingly outdated brains to become more tolerant of the "other".

Xu X, Zuo X, Wang X, & Han S (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 29 (26), 8525-9 PMID: 19571143


  1. i'm just guessing the results "show" that empathy increases with awareness of similarities and not necessarily race. there was a similar study done some time ago postulating the same idea but instead of race the study claimed faces were a major contributing factor to empathy.

  2. I'm not too sure about that. We can have many similarities (i.e. style of clothing) but it may not necessarily elicit an increase in empathy...race just seems to make more sense on an evolutionary basis.

  3. I think neurons cannot elicit such a specific complex-computational task regarding faces with different skin colours. While there are several shared mechanisms between mammals that elicit a shared response to specific facial features that can even trigger an exponse in infants, where they can identify whether a dog is potentially angry or not (mainly because of the associate mirror neurons), I think its a too specific and costly genotype, mainly because of the lack of great difference in genotype between races and the fixed behavior that this would imply (with is quite different from the algorithmically derivative behavior from mirror neurons that apply in several associate tasks).