Empathy represses analytic thought, and vice versa


Brain physiology limits simultaneous use of both networks

New research shows a simple reason why even the most intelligent, complex brains can be taken by a swindler’s story – one that upon a second look offers clues it was false.

When the brain fires up the network of neurons that allows us to empathize, it suppresses the network used for analysis, a pivotal study led by a Case Western Reserve University researcher shows.

How could a CEO be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made?

When the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed.

At rest, our brains cycle between the social and analytical networks. But when presented with a task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathway, the researchers found.

The study shows for the first time that we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at the same time

The work suggests that established theories about two competing networks within the brain must be revised. More, it provides insights into the operation of a healthy mind versus those of the mentally ill or developmentally disabled.

“This is the cognitive structure we’ve evolved,” said Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve and lead author of the new study. “Empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain.”

The research is published in the current online issue of NeuroImage.

A number of earlier studies showed that two large scale brain networks are in tension in the brain, one which is known as the default mode network and a second known as the task positive network. But other researchers have suggested that different mechanisms drive this tension:

One theory says that we have one network for engaging in goal directed tasks. This theory posits that our second network allows the mind to wander.

The other theory says that one network is for external attention, and the second network is for internal attention.

The new study shows that adults presented with social or analytical problems – all external stimuli – consistently engaged the appropriate neural pathway to solve the problem, while repressing the other pathway. The see-sawing brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Jack worked with former Case Western Reserve undergraduates Abigail Dawson, now a graduate student at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand; Katelyn Begany, now a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley; and Kevin P. Barry, now a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Other co-authors are, from Case Western Reserve: former research assistant, Regina L. Leckie and Angela H. Ciccia, an assistant professor of psychological sciences; and Abraham Z. Snyder, MD, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Jack said that a philosophical question inspired the study design: “The most persistent question in the philosophy of mind is the problem of consciousness. Why can we describe the workings of a brain, but that doesn’t tell us what it’s like to be that person?”


Written By: Case Western Reserve University
continue to source article at eurekalert.org


  1. Well it makes sense as far as it goes and might explain the jeebus drooling sycophants that plague us all in one form or another!

    Maybe that is why the religious scam tries to flood the neural pathways of young kids with images and emotional cobblers entwined and barking?
    This technique might have registered with the movers & shakers of gobbly gook years ago,
    It is possible they do not understand the mechanism per se but they seem fairly confident the ‘pink & fluffy’ works!
    Encourage the empathetic smother the analytical.

    If the empathy bone is tickled so young with the attendant suppression of the analytic it could well be a dominating and powerful mind set crafted to sit next to the basic set of love and nurture and a scary world thus allowing tales of sky fairies to encroach and take root in young minds.
    The rest is just reinforcement of the meme, but the importance of getting them young and philosophically naive seems to be the  mission goal.
    Certainly the ‘educational’ aspirations of the religious in schooling seems to prefer the banal and downplay the cerebral to a certain extent.
    The so-called degree mills of the mid and south west of the USA seem to conform to that game plan.

    But…what happens later in life, apart from peer pomposity which is gleaned from the barking in chiefs, why is this mind set primary emotion suppressed ?
    I have yet to meet a all singing, all dancing,  shiny eyed,  xtian with a empathetic bone in its body!

  2. Is this confirmation of the age-old dichotomy of head versus ‘heart’?

    It would be fascinating to know the long-term effects of exposing the social/empathy network to repeated stimulus (c.f. all ‘tabloid’ media) on the hypothesised ‘switching’ mechanism as it may have significant consequences for the equity of media management and the basis for a fully informed democratic polity.

    The full-length piece does seem to say, regarding perceptual rivalry, that we also have under-developed (i.e. poorly educated) social/empathy cortices. But is that true – or are we merely poorly evolved to handle the challenges of a rapidly changing and modern, science and technology filled, environment?

    It seems to me that the Researcher’s conclusion that we need to spend more on education to support the social/empathy cortex could find support in the need to better educate and treat criminals out of criminal behaviour, and support thinking that properly applies the Golden Rule, as we so often see a lack of empathy in public debates of all kinds.

    That said, and given that the researchers have already found the the social network takes a larger proportion of cortex than the analytical network, might further emphasis on the social be detrimental to analytical thinking overall?

    Clearly, much more study is required.


  3. I think that there is something valid here –  more studies please.

    I think the words “at rest” are crucial. Especially if we repress a mode of thinking. A balance is needed and sometimes people need to slow down and think
    things through- anticipating possible consequences, projecting into the
    future, foreseeing the effects…. before acting or reacting. The more analytical you are, they more time you need to think things through so you don’t put your foot in your mouth. On the other hand, people who are highly empathetic sometimes need to take in the facts and get their information straight before voicing their views. When your stressed out, you react. There are lots of ways to think perhaps hundreds upon thousands of different ways and modes. Perhaps people need to be taught divergent thinking skills to better utilize different areas of their brains..

    One theory says that we have one network for engaging in goal directed
    tasks. This theory posits that our second network allows the mind to

    I have found that many artists with a high level of skill have difficulty painting and talking at the same time. During demonstrations, at some point in time, they need to stop talking and actually paint or stop painting to  talk. Very few artists can do both simultaneously; speaking greatly slows the process down. I wonder if these skills are somehow related to this idea of wandering and being directed.

  4. “This shows scientific accounts really do leave something out – the
    human touch. A major challenge for the science of the mind is how we can
    better translate between the cold and distant mechanical descriptions
    that neuroscience produces, and the emotionally engaged intuitive
    understanding which allows us to relate to one another as people.”

    I liked everything up until this bit. Consciousness is not a problem, the explanatory gap is fundamental.

  5. Thank you for understanding! Because if you don’t feel my pain I can’t explain it to you.

  6. Can there be too much empathy? Or, can empathy be misdirected? I like what Steven Pinker said about empathy in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

    “The problem with building a better world through empathy, in the sense of contagion, mimicry, vicarious emotion, or mirror neurons, is that it cannot be counted on to trigger the kind of empathy we want, namely sympathetic concern for others’ well-being. Sympathy is endogenous, an effect rather than a cause of how people relate to one another. Depending on how beholders conceive of a relationship, their response to another person’s pain may be empathic, neutral, or even counter-empathic.”

    – pg. 578

  7. This seems similar to previous research in economics which indicates that analytical scrutiny of new information  (financial advice) is supressed in specific circumstances. (Unconscious validation, not precise logical reasoning.) This process normally highlights contradictions and inconsistencies with new information via cross-referencing other existing neural networks to compare with what is already known and learned. That it occurs can was similarly demonstrated by fMRI and by comparing the response time to process new information presented in different circumstances. The analytical aspects takes considerable processing time and neural energy resources, and adds measurable milliseconds to responses.

    Those circumstances when this unconscious scepticism ceases are when newly presented information is pre-assessed as not requiring validation, as the source is estimated as reliable and trustworthy. Particularly relevant with financial planners who bamboozle victims complex investment advice where hardly any lay person understands the relevant tax rules, compound interest, fee structure of how money gets created and where is disappears to. I think the original research was exploring why people are so easily defrauded by financial advisers, despite most of their advice being either negligent or self-serving to the financial industry.

    This feature may have become selected for in our ancestors because it facilitates rapid learning based on spoken information, to speed up transmission of complex information to children, rather than them having to rely on being shown everything personally. i.e. So Kids don’t have to see it to believe it. Kids end up believing in things they’ve never experience or seen themselves, like wolves, tigers, quicksand, poisonous plants, and where to find water in a 100-year cyclical drought. Trade-off being that they are also prone to believing in other invisible threats, which may or may not exist.

    The trigger for a similar mental suppression mechanism in adulthood are when emotional anxiety and uncertainty are combined with apparently relevant new information perceived as being sourced from an apparent expert authority.

    Maybe there is a connection with this research and the mechanism by which another person is assessed as a credible expert. This assessment would depend to some extent of empathy, in the sense of putting oneself in the other’s position and considering whether that other person is similar enough to oneself. i.e. equally trustworthy but with possessing more relevant specific knowledge, in the sense that most people trust and believe themselves and what they already know.

    It’s already been well-established that similarity is a very powerful unconscious influence and a popular tool for  con men to acquire credibility. Like with cold-reading, most unscrupulous sales people have been heavily trained to cast about for multiple ‘hits’ that will trigger the similarity effect in prospective victims. If you engage with sales people you’ll often find that they will initially enquire about various personal interests and then will typically conform themselves to match in some way. The most bizarre one I read about was a Japanese car accessory manufacturer that produced fake sets of golf clubs that could could be permanently mounted in the rear window of a small hatchback giving the illusion that the driver was a golfer (very common interest in Japan, though expensive) while not detracting from the normal storage space in the back of the vehicle.

  8. I am not at all convinced, based on a sample of one (me) becoming more analytical makes me more empathetic. For example knowing that human anatomy is more or less that same irrespective of skin colour, make prejudice on the basis of skin colour absolutely ridiculous. Being entertained by a good who-done-it mystery, helps me to see the other persons points of view in other situations (and stops me jumping to conclusions). Knowing that stars died so that we could live (quote from Prof Krauss) is very much an emotional thought, but only possible via an analytic process. I see no reason why I cannot be both analytical and empathetic at the same time.

    On the other hand if religions are all about being empathetic, how come (some) religious people commit the worst atrocities?

  9.  “On the other hand if religions are all about being empathetic, how come (some) religious people commit the worst atrocities?”

    Because they are empathetic to the feelings of their own, and their god and see anyone else as ‘Other’.

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