Researchers Attempt to Teach Brains to Be Empathetic, Blade Runner-Style
Brazillian researchers may have developed brain exercises for the development of empathy. The researchers from three Brazilian universities – the D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR), Universidade Federal do ABC and Gaffrée e Guinle University Hospital, and King's College in London, mapped the brains of 25 participants, and then used brain scanners to detect patterns of activity created by empathy. Using a combination of brain scans and emotional feedback techniques, they were able to help participants focus and strengthen feelings of affection and tenderness.
In order to create this map of empathetic feelings, researchers scanned the brains of participants while asking them to identify a memory in which they felt empathy, a memory in which they felt proud, and a control state, where thoughts were neutral. A computer program was then used to identify patterns of brain activity linked to each of these emotions.
Once the software was trained, participants were asked to hold focus on a specific thought/feeling for each emotion (empathy, pride, and neutral). They were then shown feedback of the strength of their brain processes in the form of distorted rings. The rings became progressively smoother as the participant learned to strengthen that particular brain activity, demonstrating that they could control their emotional processes in response to feedback.
Previously, this technology was pure science fiction. The Voight-Kampff machine was the brainchild of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Though referenced in his novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," the machine played a much more prominent role in the work's screen adaptation, "Blade Runner." In the film, the Voight-Kampff test served to distinguish humans from replicants (non-human androids), by measuring empathetic responses, or lack thereof. Then, an android was given human memories in order to help her more easily feel some version of empathy.
The Voight-Kampff test implies that empathy is a defining trait of humanity, but in reality, approximately 1% of the population are psychopaths, or incapable of experiencing empathy. This real-life version of the characters' efforts to help an android feel empathy could potentially help psychopaths feel empathy. Participants who were given feedback on their brain patterns were able to strengthen them, which demonstrates that humans can voluntarily enhance brain signatures. This has incredible implications for promoting prosocial emotions, and countering antisocial behavior, though more testing and development is required before it is approved as an actual treatment.
A follow up experiment will examine whether the brains of psychopaths differ from this pattern.