Life can seem unfair sometimes – you put on your new jeans then you get splashed by a bus driving through a puddle. But how sweet it is to see someone else get splashed – an emotion known as schadenfreude, or taking pleasure from someone else’s pain or discomfort. Envy is also another common social emotion. And now scientists in Japan have used functional MRI scanning – a technique that highlights areas of activity in the brain – to map the areas involved in these complex emotions.
The researchers used fMRI to peer inside the brains of 19 healthy volunteers and looked at how they responded to schadenfreude or envy in various situations. They found that envy was reflected by activity in a region of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex – the same regions that’s involved in response to physical pain.
But when it came to schadenfreude, the team found that it activated a region called the ventral striatum, which is involved in reward. And the feelings of reward were more intense when bad things happened to someone the volunteer envied.
It seems that in this case, someone else’s pain is interpreted as gain, but when you’re envious, someone’s gain is your pain. And it shows that social emotions are treated more like physical experiences by the brain than we previously thought. It may be that, while we experience lack of food, drink or shelter as physical pain, there may be a social benefit in interpreting these emotions as pain, and it has evolved as a result of humans living in complex social communities.