Neural Empathy Is Increased With Inter-racial Familiarity

The more time you spend with people of a different race, the more empathy you have for them, according to new University of Queensland research.

Ross Cunnington, of UQ’s School of Psychology and Queensland Brain Institute Associate Professor, investigated whether people’s brains responded to people of other races differently following an increase in contact with that race.

“Research over the past decade has shown the brain has a very strong racial bias in response to seeing others in pain or suffering,” Dr Cunnington said.

“As a result, we have much stronger biologically-driven empathy towards people of our own race. However, our study has shown that the level of empathy in the brain increases the more a person spends time with other races.”

Professor Cunnington said empathy hinged partly on cerebral processes that led people to automatically mirror or share the emotions of others.

New Immigrants

The study involved Chinese students who had recently arrived in Brisbane, who recorded the level of contact they had with people of other nationalities. The students were shown videos of Chinese and Caucasian actors receiving a painful or non-painful touch to their cheek.

Researchers used brain imaging techniques to record the level of neural empathy in the brains the students as they viewed each video clip. Dr Cunnington said:

“We found those who reported more contact with other races since their arrival showed higher levels of neural empathy compared to those who had less contact.

This did not depend upon the closeness of contact or personal relationships, but simply the overall level of experience with other-race people in everyday life.

The response of the brain that leads us to feel distress or intervene when others are suffering adapts to give the strongest response towards people we typically see around us in our everyday environment.”

Dr Cunnington said the findings were positive for Australia’s multicultural society and could help new immigrants in connecting with others.

Yuan Cao, Luis Sebastian Contreras-Huerta, Jessica McFadyen, Ross Cunnington
Racial bias in neural response to others’ pain is reduced with other-race contact
Cortex, doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.02.010

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