Empathy for familiar friends appears to be hardwired into our brains, according to a recent MRI study by Lane Beckes, James A. Coan and Karen Hasselmo published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The regions of the brain responsible for threat response become active when faced with the threat of harm to friends just as with a threat to ourselves, while there is virtually no response to a threat to a stranger. Sticking with the empathy theme, it seems we have more empathy for victims of abuse when they are puppies, full-grown dogs and human infants than adult humans, according to a recent presentation by Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Levin says that age is the most important determinant of the level of empathy people feel, with adult dogs perhaps viewed as just large puppies that are still dependent and need protection. He speculates that battered cats might also elicit a high level of empathy. All of this does not bode well for world peace, unless we can train our brains to view strangers as cats and dogs.
Article in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Program for 2013 meeting of the American Sociological Association