August 4, 2008

Empathetic Young Moralists

A new study found that children not only feel empathy, but also have a strong moral sense...
Just like adults, children feel empathy for others who are in pain. A study investigating activity in specific brain areas also found that areas of the brain connected with moral reasoning lit up when children were shown animations of people intentionally hurting other people. The patterns were similar to those seen in adults.

When children were shown someone in pain, the same regions of their brains showed activity as had been previously seen in adults.

What is life like, as seen through the eyes of a child? In some ways, it's not all that different from the adult experience. Children are upset to see others in pain and when they see pain being intentionally inflicted on others, they register, at a minimum, the unfairness of it all.

A recently-concluded study examined the perceptions of 17 children, between the ages of seven and 12. The study used a technique known as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The technique measures and displays activity in specific regions of the brain. The children were shown animations of accidental pain, such as when someone drops a heavy object on their foot, as well as pain caused intentionally, as when someone steps on another person's foot. A variety of other animations were also tested in the study.

When children were shown someone in pain, the same regions of their brains showed activity as had been previously seen in adults. When the animations involved pain that was intentionally caused, additional regions of the brain, thought to be involved in social action and moral reasoning also were activated. Interviews with the children later showed that they were aware of wrong-doing in these animations. Thirteen of the children thought that what they were seeing was unfair, and they wanted explanations.

According to Dr. Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago who headed the study, empathy is "hard-wired" into normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing.

The results also suggest the types of neurological deficits that may be at work in children (such as those diagnosed with conduct disorder) and adults (antisocial personality disorder) who do not feel empathy or a sense of moral injustice.

The study was published in the September, 2008 issue of Neuropsychologia. In the meantime, it's probably a good idea to keep in mind that your seven-year old has a pretty good idea of the difference between right and wrong.
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