Empathy speeds up learning
Empathy may make us learn faster when it comes to helping others, new research suggests, as scientists pinpoint the region of the brain responsible for this kind of learning.
Traits such as helpfulness and generosity allow us to form bonds with others, and create cohesion in social groups. Acting in the interests of others is often associated with empathy - our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.
However, it was previously unclear how helpful behaviours and empathy might be linked in the brain.
Now, scientists have shown that people with higher levels of empathy are actually faster at working out how to help others. More empathetic people also showed greater activity in a specific brain region, hailed as the brain's 'generosity centre', when learning to benefit someone else.
"What this shows us, for the first time, is that empathy does really seem to translate into people's behaviours," explained Dr Patricia Lockwood, who is leading the research at the University of Oxford.
In the study, participants first rated their own empathy levels using a standard questionnaire. Then they were asked to play a simple game, in which they had to pick between two different symbols. They were only told that one symbol carried a high chance of winning points, while the other had a low chance.
Points would be converted to money at the end of the game, but the participants had to learn through trial and error which symbols would earn them greater winnings.
As well as playing to win money for themselves, the volunteers were also asked to play on behalf of another person.
The researchers then looked at how quickly the participants were able to figure out which were the winning symbols.
Overall, people learnt more quickly when they were playing for themselves, compared to playing for someone else, but the differences in learning speed were smaller for people with higher empathy scores.
"People who report themselves to be high in empathy... actually learn at a similar rate when they are trying to benefit somebody else," Patricia explains. "Relative to the low empathy people they are actually learning faster to help the other person."
By studying the participants' brain activity during the game, the researchers identified a region of the brain that was active only when playing on behalf of someone else. This region deep within the brain is called the 'subgenual anterior cingulate cortex', and is now believed to drive learning when we are seeking the best outcome for someone else.
Understanding what happens in the brain when we help others could also give insights into conditions such as autism, as well as disorders like psychopathy.
"There are lots of disorders associated with reductions in helping others," Patricia says. "In our future research, we'd hope to... see whether it's particularly a problem with learning that explains why these individuals don't perform actions that help others, or behave antisocially."