Posts Tagged ‘Christian Keysers’

How to Hack Your Unconscious…to Conquer Your Fears

August 3, 2018

This post is based on a feature article with the same title as this post by Emma Young in the 28 July 2018 issue of the New Scientist. Fear is good. It plays an important role in our survival. Too much fear is a problem. Today, the treatment for a phobia—such as an irrational fear of spiders or dogs—is likely to involve gradually increasing an individual’s exposure to the feared object, while they learn techniques to reduce their anxiety.

In the future, psychologists may directly tap into the unconscious mind to treat phobias without traumatizing people. That is the hope of a team of researchers in Japan and the US. They identified a distinctive pattern of brain activity associated with a fear they had induced in volunteers, and found that it could be reduced simply by rewarding them when their brains displayed it—all the while the subjects were not conscious of this brain activity.

Fear, like any emotion, is underpinned by physical signals in the body. These include a stronger and more rapid heartbeat as well as changes in patterns of blood flow. Such bodily signals are critical to the experience of fear, even though they are usually registered unconsciously.

Lowering their intensity reduces the intensity of the emotion. When we are stressed, we can do this by slowing our breathing rate. This sends a powerful signal that you are not feeling anxious to the part of your brain involved in processing emotion, which then helps regulate your heart rate. For the best results, breathe in for a count of four and out for eiight, and within 5 minutes you should notice a significant reduction in anxiety. Music can have a similar effect, although there’s no one type that works for everyone. Maria-Sanchez-Vives at the Cortical Networks and Virtual Environments in Neuroscience Research in Barcelona, Spain says, “Generally, slower music, of moderate volume, can help to slow down respiration and help us to relax.”

Remember that your unconscious mind can trick you into feeling afraid when you have nothing to fear. In a phenomenon called emotion contagion, we consciously “catch” emotions via other people’s non-verbal signals, such as their tone of voice, posture and even body odor. Empathy specialist Christian Keysers at the University of Amsterdam thinks that when we detect the signals of an emotion like fear in others, our bodies reproduce the relevant physical signals, which our brains interpret as our own. This is hard to consciously safeguard against, except by avoiding people who are fearful—whether that’s face-to-face, on social media or even reading about them. The flip side of this is that you can cultivate positive motions simply by spending more time in the company of happy people.

Empathy vs. Compassion

May 25, 2016

This post is based on an article by Emma Young titled “How sharing other people’s feelings can make you sick,” in the May 14, 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  As this article notes empathy is undeniably a good thing.  The primatologist Frans de Waal has suggested that being affected by another’s emotional state was the earliest step in our evolution as a collaborative species.

The distinction between what we and others feel isn’t terribly clear to our brains.  Tania Singer and her colleagues demonstrated this in 2004 when they put 16 romantic couples into an MRI scanner.  When they gave these volunteers a painful electric shock,this elicited activity in brain regions known to respond to physical pain and also in regions tuned to emotional pain.  However, when volunteers saw their loved partners  get a shock, no activity registered in their physical pain center, but their emotion regions lit up like fireworks.  Subsequently many other studies have confirmed that this “empathy for pain” network exists, and that it does not distinguish whether the pain we’re observing is physical or psychological.

Moreover, we don’t just catch pain from those we are intimate with.  People in the care giving professions  such as hospice staff, nurses, psychotherapists, and pediatricians often see and feel the stress and pain of others, which leads to a kind empathy burnout.  This empathy burnout has be given names such as “secondary traumatic stress” and vicarious  traumatization.”  Symptoms include lowered ability to feel empathy and sympathy, increased anger and anxiety, and more absenteeism.  Studies have linked these symptoms with an indifferent attitude to patients, depersonalization and poorer care.  Apparently anyone can catch stress any time they understand someone else’s pain and share in it.  This activate empathy for the individual’s pain network.  Singer’s research ha shown that for some people the physical effects of emotional contagion apply even when they observe a person they don’t know suffering distress.  Experiments have shown that people who watched a 15-minute newscast reported increased anxiety afterwards, with their anxiety decreasing only after an extended relaxation exercise.

Other research has shown that empathy can be regulated, just as emotions can be regulated.  Christian Keysers and his colleagues have looked at how people diagnosed with psychopathy, who are commonly thought to lack all capacity for empathy, react when the see images of people in pain.  Initially the team presented images without any instructions as to what to feel.  Predictably, the psychopaths showed less activity in areas association with areas associated with empathy for sensations, and in the insult, than the brains of healthy people.  When Keysers asked these psychopaths to consciously empathize, something very different happened;  their brain responses were identical to healthy people.

Research has shown that the training Buddhist monks undergo give them a heightened ability to manipulate their neural circuitry for empathy.  Richard Davidson  asked these monks to engage in a form of compassion meditation known as loving kindness meditation, in which one is encouraged to gradually extend warmth and care from your self and others.  Davidson found that this process changed the firing of the monks’ neural circuitry.  It suppressed activity  in the anterior insult and in the amygdala a regions involved in threat detection but recruited during empathic responses.  But when one monk was asked to empathize with suffering instead of engaging in compassion, his empathy for pain network lit up, and almost immediately, he begged the proctor to stop the experiment, calling the feeling unbearable.  The subtle distinction is that compassion is feeling for and not with the other.

Research is being done on training people this distinction between compassion and empathy.  The initial results are promising. Let us hope that such training will be readily available to caretakers and others in need of this training.