Empathy Is 'Hard-Wired' in Children's Brains

Scans show young naturally prone to relate to pain in others, study says

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WEDNESDAY, July 16, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Empathy comes naturally to children, a new report shows.

Using functional MRI scans on normal kids aged 7 to 12, researchers found the parts of the children's brains that were activated when shown pictures of people in pain, according to findings published in the current issue of Neuropsychologia.

Study author Jean Decety, a professor in the departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, reported that empathy appears to be "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, as opposed to being solely the result of parental guidance or nurturing.

"Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people in pain in children was associated with increased hemodymamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of firsthand experience of pain...," Decety wrote.

Knowing how the brain responds to pain may help scientists understand the relationship between brain impairments and anti-social behavior, such as bullying, he said in a University of Chicago news release.

Follow-up interviews with the participants showed they perceived wrongdoing in the animations where someone was hurt. "Although our study did not tap into explicit moral judgment, perceiving an individual intentionally harming another person is likely to elicit the awareness of moral wrongdoing in the observer," Decety wrote.

More information

The National Institute on Aging has more about how the brain works.

SOURCE: University of Chicago, news release, July 11, 2008

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