Empathy, evaluation and explanatory gap

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Article Date: 
Nov 12 2012, 2100

An important study, reported on October 30 by Science Daily, indicates that when our brain fires up the network of neurons that enable us to empathise, it suppresses the network used for critical analysis. This significant study conducted by Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, US explains, for example, how a CEO can be blind to the human cost involved in decision making.
The study shows that when the analytic network is employed, our ability to appreciate the human and social cost of our action is repressed. Normally our brains cycle between the social and analytical networks. But when presented with a task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathway, depending on the situation.
Thus, the study shows that we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic concurrently. It provides new insights into the operation of a healthy mind versus those of the mentally ill or developmentally disabled. Anthony Jack, professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve and lead author of the new study, opined that “empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain.” The new study shows that adults presented with social or analytical problems consistently engaged the appropriate neural pathway to solve the problem, while repressing the other pathway.
“The disconnect between experiential understanding and scientific understanding is known as the explanatory gap,” Jack explained. In 2006, he together with Philip Robbins, a philosopher at the University of Missouri and Anthony Jack proposed “a pretty crazy, bold hypothesis: that the explanatory gap is driven by our neural structure.” The findings of the present study fit that theory.
These findings suggest the same neural phenomenon drives the explanatory gap occurs when we look at a visual illusion such as the duck-rabbit. The drawing of the head of the animal can be seen as a duck facing one direction or a rabbit facing the other, but we cannot see both at once.
“That is called perceptual rivalry, and it occurs because of neural inhibition between the two representations,” Jack added. “What we see in this study is similar, but much more wide-scale. We see neural inhibition between the entire brain network we use to socially, emotionally and morally engage with others, and the entire network we use for scientific, mathematical and logical reasoning.”
This has serious human, moral and social implications. “This shows scientific accounts really do leave something out — the human touch. A major challenge for the science of the mind is how we can better translate between the cold and distant mechanical descriptions that neuroscience produces, and the emotionally engaged intuitive understanding which allows us to relate to one another as people.”
But, even healthy adults can rely too much on one network, Jack said. “You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business,” he said. “But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking.” He added, “You’ll never get by without both networks. You don’t want to favour one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time.”Healthy humans need to preserve the healthy tension or see-sawing by maintain the gap between the empathetic and the analytic thinking, between scientific and religious spirit. The ability to move from one to the other should always be maintained.
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)