Children between the ages of seven and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.
The researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scans to study responses in children.
Researchers found that children show responses to pain in the same areas of their brains than adults.
The research also found additional aspects of the brain activated when children saw another person being hurt intentionally.
"This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others, and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else," said Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, who reported the findings in the current issue of the journal Neuropsychologia.
The programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing, said Decety. Understanding the brain's role in responding to pain can help researchers understand how brain impairments influence anti-social behavior, such as bullying, he said.
For their research, the team showed 17 typically developed children - ages seven to 12 - animated photos of people experiencing pain, either received accidentally or inflicted intentionally. The group included nine girls and eight boys.
While undergoing fMRI scans, children were shown animations of people in pain caused accidently - such as when a heavy bowl was dropped on their hands - and situations in which the people were hurt intentionally - such as when a person stepped on someone's foot intentionally. They were also shown pictures without pain, and animations in which people helped someone alleviate pain.
The scans showed that the same parts of the brain activated in children as were triggered when adults see pain.
"Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of pain empathy with adults, in children the perception of other people in pain was associated with increased hemodymamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of first-hand experience of pain, including the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray and supplementary motor area," Decety wrote.
However, when the children saw animations of someone intentionally hurt, the regions of the brain engaged in social interaction and moral reasoning (the temporo-parietal junction, the paracigulate, orital medial frontal cortices and amygdala) were also activated.
The study provides new insights on children's' perceptions of right and wrong and how their brains process information, Decety said. "Although our study did not tap into explicit moral judgment, perceiving an individual intentionally harming another person is likely to elicit the awareness of moral wrongdoing in the observer," he wrote. – (EurekAlert)
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