Our team vs. their team: neuroscience helps too

In a series of previous posts I've argued that our theology and praxis of multi-faith engagement can benefit from a conversation with social psychology. This helps us better understand aspects of human behavior as it relates to intergroup conflict. Other disciplines can help us here too, such as social neuroscience. 

An example comes by way of an experiment conducted in the PBS series The Brain with David Eagleman. In the program titled "Why Do I Need You?," he used a functional MRI (fMRI) scan to test empathy responses to others in pain. There is a pain matrix in the brain that registers pain when we experience it and when we see others do so as well. The same neural pathways are involved. So when we say, "I feel your pain," this is the neurological process of empathy involved.

Eagleman drew upon 130 participants in the scans. First, their empathic responses were recorded to a photo of a hand being stabbed with a syringe. As predicted, there was a strong feeling of connection to the hand in the photo so that the pain matrix of the brain lit up as it would if the participants' own hands were being stabbed. Then the same photo had different labels attached to them —  Christian, Atheist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Scientologist — one of which was randomly stabbed by a syringe. The results were interesting, and troubling. People reacted to the hands with the label from their in-group, but when they saw members of out-group hands stabbed their was very little reaction. Eagleman summarizes the results of his experiment:

"A single word label is enough to change your brain's basic preconscious response to another person in pain. In other words, how much you care about them. Now you might have opinions about religion and its historical divisiveness, but even atheists here care more about other atheists' hands getting stabbed than they do about other people. So it's not really about religion. It's about which team you're on."

So social neuroscience, like social psychology, helps us understand what's going on in the human brain. We're wired to care more for our in-group members than those in the out-group, and our social experience works to confirm our neural makeup. This reality needs to be accounted for and worked through in order to help create empathy towards others. 

The video below describes Eagleman's experiment. It's worth the two-and-a-half minutes of your time to watch. For those who'd like to go into more depth on the subject, Eagleman discusses this and other facets of dehumanization in a segment from a lecture, and on his blog. You might also look at The Empathic Brain by Christian Keysers (Social Brain Press, 2011). 

John Morehead