Salman Rushdie once described the human spirit in The Satanic Verses as a mixed dichotomy between the angelic devil and the devilish angel. Similarly, neuroscientists say a continuum of empathic intelligence exists with the species, with varying tendencies toward altruism and psychopathology. Now, researchers in Brazil say the use of newly developed biofeedback techniques may help to “train” the mind to feel greater levels of empathy and tenderness for others.

“We found that participants were able to use visual feedback based on decoded fMRI patterns as a neurofeedback signal to increase brain activation characteristic of tenderness/affection relative to pride, an equally complex control emotion,” says researcher Jorge Moll of D’Or Institute for Research and Education in Rio de Janeiro, in a press statement. “Such improvement was not observed in a control group performing the same fMRI task without neurofeedback.”

In the study, Moll and his colleagues scanned volunteers to identify neurological patterns associated with those feelings of tenderness and affection for loved ones, finding that such patterns could be strengthened with a bit of coaching. Reporting in the journal PLOS ONE on Tuesday, the researchers said the findings may help clinicians treat patients diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder as well as postpartum depression.

With recent advances in neurobiology and neurotechnology, researchers have wondered whether it’s possible to identify and decode brain signals associated with the so-called affiliative emotions, and whether those patterns might be enhanced. In this new study, the researchers used algorithms called “support vector machines” to classify complex brain patterns associated with such feelings, finding they could indeed help volunteers to induce greater levels of empathy.

Moll says the study also demonstrates that “humans can voluntarily enhance brain signatures of tenderness [and] affection, unlocking new possibilities for promoting prosocial emotions and countering anti-social behavior.” With the technique, the researchers observed a local response in the septhohypothalmic area as well as the prefrontal cortex — brain regions previously implicated in the production of affiliative emotion.

Somewhat chillingly, the study authors compare the new technique to the fictive “empathy box” described in the 1982 dystopian film Blade Runner, whereby police hunt humanoid “replicants” deemed incapable of such affiliative emotions. However, Moll and his colleagues emphasize that such cognitive “enhancements” should be served on a voluntary basis.

 

Source: Moll J, Weingartner JH, Bado P, et al. Voluntary Enhancement of Neural Signatures of Affiliative Emotion Using fMRI Neurofeedback. PLOS ONE. 2014.