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Sally feels your pain. Harry just points and laughs.

Posted: October 6th, 2010, 12:22 pm
by lkblackburne
You could say that fiction is about pain. When you boil them down, stories describe characters taking hits and trying to emerge as unscathed as possible. Neighborhood under attack by zombies? Run hard and hope you have some painkillers on hand if they catch you. Or what if it’s actually a friendly, attractive zombie who loves you? In that case, it’s all good -- until you realize that mortals and undead can never be together. Oh the agonies of unfulfilled love!

So stories and torment come hand in hand. As a reader, you’re with the characters, empathizing with their struggles and hoping for a happy ending. How does this work? What is it in our brains that lets us understand other people’s pain? Well I'm glad you asked, because neuroscientists have made some progress on this question.

How do you study empathy and pain? One current technique involves electric shocks and people who love each other.

Neuroscientist Tania Singer came up with a clever experiment. She recruited women with their significant others. Singer put the woman inside an fMRI brain scanner while the significant other sat outside. Both participants were connected to electrodes capable of administering a painful shock. (Now before my fellow neuroscientists accuse me of ruining our reputations, I should emphasize that these participants were paid handsomely and had the option to stop the experiment at any time.)

Throughout the experiment both the woman and her partner received shocks, and a computer screen indicated who was getting the painful treatment. Singer found that a certain network of brain regions in the woman’s brain activated when she was in pain. But what happened when the significant other was shocked instead? The same network lit up when the woman knew that her partner was getting shocked. It turns out that we process other people's pain with the same brain regions that we use to process our own.

This kind of makes sense. Think about the last time you read a passage about a painful experience. Depending on how engaging the writer was, you might have felt like you were suffering alongside the character. But that's not the whole story. Many people suffer in stories, but we’re not always upset about it. What happens if the person in pain is someone we don't like?

Singer and colleagues did another study asking that question. This time, they had participants play a game before the brain scan. Unbeknownst to the participants, some players in the game were actually actors working with the scientists. One actor's job was to play the game fairly, while the other actor’s job was to play in an obviously unfair way. You can guess which actor was more popular.

Then it was off to the scanner again. The real participant went inside the scanner, while the two actors sat outside. Again, shocks were delivered, and the computer screen indicated who was receiving the shock.

This time, the results depended on whether the participant was a man or a woman. Both genders had empathy-related brain activation when the fair player was in pain. However, the men had less empathy- related activation when the unfair player was shocked. What’s more, they had increased activation in reward-related brain areas when the unfair player got shocked. The men actually enjoyed it when the unfair player was in pain (“Bastard had it coming!”). After the experiment, Singer asked the men to rate their desire for revenge toward the unfair player. It turns out that amount of reward-related brain activation in men correlated with their desire for revenge. In guys at least, it seems that the response to someone else's pain depends on whether or not that person deserved it.

Now as with all studies, we should remember that this is only one data set and it needs to be replicated. Also, note this study does not distinguish between gender differences based on biology versus social expectations. But it’s still interesting to think about. Could this be why men often gravitate toward action movies with bad guys getting killed by the dozens? In addition to the specific gender difference, this experiment is also a good reminder that readers react differently to the same event. If you want your story to have a certain effect, you need to understand who you're writing for.

As a writer, what can we learn from this? Well, it's kinda cool when you think about it. As a writer, you pull the strings and control whether your reader groans in sympathy or sits back and grins. If your audience feels close to the character, if they get to know and like her, they’ll hurt along with her. However, if they see your character’s nasty side, they may find it satisfying when she comes to a painful demise. Also, think about your readers’ expectations. Are they male? Female? Young? Old? Grownups and teens may be able to handle and appreciate a painful bittersweet resolution, but if you’re writing children’s books, perhaps you should think twice before having a Hamlet style ending.

So what kind of pain are you inflicting today?

By day, Livia Blackburne is a neuroscience graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At other times, she writes YA fantasy. On her blog A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing, she looks at writing from a brain scientist's analytical perspective.

Re: Sally feels your pain. Harry just points and laughs.

Posted: October 7th, 2010, 2:51 am
by Mira
Woah. This is really interesting. It makes sense, too, on an intuitive level.

Cool - thanks for sharing this and the experiements.