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Emotions Vs. Rationality: Human Brains are Physically Different

First Posted: Jun 19, 2015 08:57 AM EDT

There may be physical differences in the brains of people who respond emotionally to others' feelings compared to those who respond rationally. Scientists have taken a closer look at human brains and have discovered an actual difference in the amount of brain cells.

"People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene," said Robert Eres, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counseling a client."

In order to get a better understanding of the difference between a rational and emotional brain, the researchers used voxel-based morphometry (VBM). They looked at the grey matter density in 176 participants and saw the extent to which this density predicted their scores on tests that rated their levels for cognitive empathy compared to affective (emotional) empathy.

So what did they find? It turns out that people with high scores for affective empathy had greater grey matter density in the insula, which is a region found right in the "middle" of the brain. Those who scored higher for cognitive empathy had greater density in the midcingulate cortex, an area above the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

The new findings could mean that some kinds of empathy could be increased through training. In addition, it's possible that people can lose their capacity for empathy if they don't use it enough. However, further studies are needed before researchers can say definitively whether either of these things is true.

"In the future we want to investigate causation by testing whether training people on empathy related tasks can lead to changes in these brain structures and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as a result of a stroke for example, can lead to empathy impairments," said Eres.

The findings are published in the journal NeuroImage.

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