Friday, January 27, 2006

Men are Torturers, Women are Nurturers...

...tell it to Lynndie England!!

All right, let's start at the beginning. My sound-byte-worthy headline was derived from a paper published this week in Nature:

Singer T, Seymour B, O'doherty JP, Stephan KE, Dolan RJ, Frith CD.
Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others.
Nature. 2006 Jan 26; 439:466-9.

The neural processes underlying empathy are a subject of intense interest within the social neurosciences. However, very little is known about how brain empathic responses are modulated by the affective link between individuals. We show here that empathic responses are modulated by learned preferences, a result consistent with economic models of social preferences. We engaged male and female volunteers in an economic game, in which two confederates played fairly or unfairly, and then measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging while these same volunteers observed the confederates receiving pain. Both sexes exhibited empathy-related activation in pain-related brain areas (fronto-insular and anterior cingulate cortices) towards fair players. However, these empathy-related responses were significantly reduced in males when observing an unfair person receiving pain. This effect was accompanied by increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge. We conclude that in men (at least) empathic responses are shaped by valuation of other people's social behaviour, such that they empathize with fair opponents while favouring the physical punishment of unfair opponents, a finding that echoes recent evidence for altruistic punishment.

Unfortunately, this article has unleased an avalanche of what is called "BAD Neuro-Journalism" by the James S. McDonnell foundation, starting with the Editor's Summary :

I feel your pain

Humans have the capacity to empathize with the pain of others, but we don't empathize in all circumstances. An experiment on human volunteers playing an economic game looked at the conditional nature of our sympathy, and the results show that fairness of social interactions is key to the empathic neural response. Both men and women empathized with the pain of cooperative people. But if people are selfish, empathic responses were absent, at least in men. And it seems that physical harm might even be considered a good outcome — perhaps the first neuroscientific evidence for schadenfreude.

Next, this dish, best served cold:

Revenge: Why men are better at it than women

[tell that one to the proverbial "woman scorned"]

...and about 9,490 other hits.

Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others

"This investigation would seem to indicate there is a predominant role for men in maintaining justice and issuing punishment."

-- Lead researcher Dr Tania Singer

Well then, that explains why the public outrage directed at Lynndie England was so much greater than that directed at the Abu Ghraib ringleader (and father of Ms. England's child), former prison guard Charles A. Graner.

Lyndie England, the Right and Feminism
Equal Opportunity Torture


Right wing pundits have been seeking to draw special notice to Private Lynndie England. Though only one of many sadistic individuals involved in the horrific acts at the prison who were photographed, England has been on the receiving end of the most invective. Though her fellow sadists were just as cruel, England is getting all of this extra attention because she is an easier target. England is an easier target because she is a woman.

OK, back to Nature. One of the most serious problems with this article is the extrapolation from a small group of students in London to the evolution of neural machinery that implements differential sex roles.

MORE words of wisdom from Dr. Singer:

"Men expressed more desire for revenge and seemed to feel satisfaction when unfair people were given what they perceived as deserved physical punishment.

"This type of behaviour has probably been crucial in the evolution of society as the majority of people in a group are motivated to punish those who cheat on the rest.

"This altruistic behaviour means that people tend to protect each other against being exploited by society's free-loaders, and evolution has probably seeded this sense of justice and moral duty into our brains."

And don't get me started on their methodology -- a priori regions of interest (ROIs) for pain-related empathy in fronto-insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (like the relationship between those brain regions and "pain-related empathy" are well-established!) -- and on their pink-and-blue color-coded tables!

SUMMARY from The Neurocritic : Ummm, it's nice they can generalize from 16 male undergrads to the evolution of sex differences that are universally valid in all societies.

As you can tell, this one really bothers me...

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]


At January 29, 2006 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The neurocritic complained: it's nice they can generalize from 16 male undergrads to the evolution of sex differences that are universally valid in all societies.,"

Scientists always generalize. They key is justifying the generalization. What group does the neurocritic believe would be an appropriate generalization? Can the 16 male undergrads' brain patterns be generalized to other males of their age and their society but not to other ages and other societies? If not, then what would need to have a plausible scenario for why such brain patterns are characteristic of males in this society but not any other society.

At January 29, 2006 1:36 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

The generalization here was based on something for which the authors presented no evidence: the claim that revenge (and schadenfreude) are hard-wired in the brains of males. The men in this study could have just as easily developed their "desire for revenge" by playing more video games than the women in this study.

At April 16, 2006 6:23 PM, Blogger Dan Dright said...

I think you kinda shut kestrel up there.


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker