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, who used functional Magnetic
Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study responses in
The responses on the scans were similar to those found
in studies of adults. Researchers found that children,
like adults, show responses to pain in the same areas
of their brains. The research also found additional
aspects of the brain activated in children, when youngsters
saw another person intentionally hurt by another individual.
"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 article, "Who Caused the Pain? An
fMRI Investigation of Empathy and Intentionality in
Children," published in the currrent issue of Neuropsychologia.
Joining him as co-authors were University students Kalina
Michalska and Yuko Aktsuki.
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
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
While undergoing fMRI scans, children where shown animations
using three photographs of two people whose right hands
or right feet only were visible.
The photographs showed people in pain accidently caused,
such as when a heavy bowl was dropped on their hands,
and situations in which the people were hurt, such as
when a person stepped intentionally on someone's foot.
They were also shown pictures without pain and animations
in which people helped someone alleviate pain.
The scans showed that the parts of the brain activated
when adults see pain were also triggered in children.
"Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of
pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people
in pain in children 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) also were activated.
The study, which was supported by the National Science
Foundation, provides new insights for children between
childrens' 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.
Subsequent interviews with the children showed they
were aware of wrong-doing in the animations in which
someone was hurt. "Thirteen of the children thought
that the situations were unfair, and they asked about
the reason that could explain this behavior," Decety