I and Thou, the Brain and Pain: Self, Empathy and the Other

The I of the basic word I-You is different from that of the basic word I-It. The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use). The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genetive–i.e., without any “of” clause).
– Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923).
“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”
-Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).gaze_o'pain

In the July 1st issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, there is an article by Xu et al from Shihui Han’s lab on neural mechanisms involved in emapthic bias towards racial in-group members. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the authors demonstrated that when an image of painful stimulation was applied to racial in-group faces – either Caucasian or Chinese – there was increased activations in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and inferior frontal/insula cortex in both groups. These collective neural mechanisms (referred to as the not well understood ‘pain matrix’) have been a region of interest for cognitive scientists, moral psychologists and bioethicicsts in the convergent field of sociocognitive neuroscience, particularly in the study of empathy (see for example, Jackson et al., 2004). The significance of the Xu paper is that they show, from a first-person perspective, that activation in the ACC decreased significantly when participants viewed faces of the other race. The ACC also tends to be activated when individuals are in pain themselves.

Martha Farah, a neuro-ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania commented on this study in a recent issue of e! Science News, invoking the decades-long history that has examined in-group vs. out-group bias:

“This is a fascinating study of a phenomenon with important social implications for everything from medical care to charitable giving,” she said. But the finding raises as many questions as it answers, Farah said. “For example, is it racial identity per se that determines the brain’s empathic response, or some more general measure of similarity between self and other?” she said. “What personal characteristics or life experiences influence the disparity in empathic response toward in-group and out-group members?”

She continued in another online publication:

Such automatic neural responses don’t necessarily translate into behaviour, cautions Farah. “Just because there is this difference in ACC response it doesn’t mean that we are inevitably going to behave less empathically toward the other group.”

And so, I ask “so what” questions: do these findings really tell us anything we didn’t know before? So what if the brain responds differently to others? Will that change any of our current methods of socialization or anti-racism campaigns?