MONDAY, April 13, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- The busy, dot-com and atwitter world might be short-circuiting your ability to empathize with others.
It also might be pulling people away from other ways of engaging with humanity -- having actual conversations, for instance, or even reading a book.
And that ability is part of the glue that holds society together, a bedrock of socially minded individuals, interested in caring for others and building a better world, according to a study online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It's almost like CliffsNotes-ing the news, and that doesn't service anyone," said Karen Hunter, a distinguished lecturer in the department of film and media studies at Hunter College in New York City and a former reporter with the New York Daily News.
Hunter was not involved with the study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California.
Previous research had revealed that humans often react very quickly to the sight of broken bones and other signs of physical injury in others, but generating admiration and compassion -- which requires more time -- had not been investigated as fully.
For their study, the researchers asked 13 volunteers to listen to 50 "real-person," "real-life" narratives, each 60 to 90 seconds long and including a verbal component as well as pieces from television, the Internet, documentary film and radio.
Although the participants were not apprised of the intent, the narratives were geared to evoke admiration (for virtue or skill) or compassion (for social/psychological pain and physical hurt). And after they heard the narratives, they were asked, "How does this story make you feel?"
Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the participants' brains revealed that they responded to stories of virtue or social pain in as little as six to eight seconds, but responses to stories of physical pain took less than a second to kick in. However, the responses to virtue and social pain last longer.
The lack of a lasting response may inure people to the images of pain and suffering that litter modern-day media, the study found.
Both admiration and compassion also elicited responses in the areas of the brain considered more "primal," suggesting that compassion and admiration may have evolutionary roots.
The authors postulated that teaching and cultural forms, not to mention adequate pause for reflection, could help counteract this trend and lead people back toward a fuller relationship with their fellow men and women.
Harvard University has more on how the brain works.