Jean Decety is a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago who studies human empathy, or how we share and understand the feelings of another person. In 2009, the journal Biological Psychology published his study on how children with aggressive conduct disorder – associated with bullying – process empathy.
Decety says empathy is connected to a part of the brain that processes a first-hand experience of pain. He said that for most people, seeing others in pain makes you connect with that person’s pain, and it’s an unpleasant experience for you. The feeling of empathy makes you want to help them. But the children that Decety studied – kids with a history of aggression – don’t experience that empathy.
He put the children in a scanner that shows brain activity, and showed them a video of someone getting hurt. As they watched, the network in their brains that showed they were identifying pain lit up. So they did recognize others in pain. But, he said, seeing others in distress activated the region of their brains associated with reward.
Decety said this means that the children with aggressive conduct disorder can recognize negative emotion, but they process it in a positive way. He said his study could help provide a perspective on how best to treat, or intervene with, these children.
Dr. Decety’s study first examined a group of typical children in the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, as they watched video of people in pain.
Jean Decety: What we found is that when we perceive people in pain, we do activate in our brain the same network – which consists of the insular cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and periqueductal gray – that network is also involved in what we call the first-hand experience of pain. If we were ourselves in pain, we would also activate the same region.
Decety said he believes this connection is a primary way that people develop empathy. Next, he compared this group to the children with conduct disorder – a childhood psychiatric disorder characterized by antisocial and aggressive behavior.
Jean Decety: When they were watching people in pain, with a scanner like we did in the first study, we were kind of surprised that they did also activate the same network as the control group, to an even larger extent.
This was surprising, he said, because many people don’t think that bullies recognize that people are in pain. They do, said Decety, but they also activate the amygdala, and the ventral striatum, areas associated with reward.
Jean Decety: When you see someone in pain, you get an aversive signal. It’s unpleasant, it’s negative. And for the bullies, it’s not unpleasant. It’s really pleasant, it’s positive, it’s even rewarding.