Contrary to conceptions of human nature as fundamentally selfish, compassion appears to be as deep-seated a trait as fear or anger.
When researchers showed multimedia documentaries designed to arouse compassion or admiration to 13 test subjects, brain scans revealed activity in the precuneus, posterior cingulate cortex and retrosplenial region. The study’s authors describe the areas as "an intriguing territory currently known for its involvement in the default mode of brain operation."
"In the very least, it tells us that social emotions are not skin deep," said study co-author Antonio Damasio, a University of Southern California neuroscientist. "They engage our whole biology viscerally, so to speak."
"Given the common impression that admiration and compassion are cultural artifacts, it is intriguing to see that they recruit the brain depths not unlike evolutionarily old emotions such as fear," he said.
From a neuroanatomical standpoint, the findings are also useful because scientists would not otherwise know "that engaging emotions such as admiration or compassion would recruit brain structures well below the cortex, in the hypothalamus and brain stem, whose role is known to regulate life," Damasio said.
The findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Citation: "Neural correlates of admiration and compassion." By Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Andrea McColl, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio Damasio. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 15, April 13, 2009.