Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Research Suggests Empathy and Analytic Thinking are Mutually Exclusive

Recent research utilizing functional MRI suggests that the circuits of the brain that are activated during analytic tasks are actually inhibited when people are engaged in social tasks,  and vice versa.

So, for example, when people are engaged in tasks that stimulate the centers of the brain associated with analytic problem solving, pathways activated during tasks that evoke empathic understanding are inhibited. The results, published online in the neuroimaging journal, NeuroImage, in October, 2012, were  summarized in an artilce that appeared on Medical News Today  -

These interesting findings shed light on the neural processes invovled in analytic and social tasks and suggest that empathic thinking and analytic thinking may be mutually exclusive. No wonder it is hard for us to consider the experience and feelings of others when we are deeply engaged in analytic problem solving. This also may explain why many health care providers miss opportunities to respond to patients' emotions when they are "conducting a history" and engaging in diagnostic reasoning and treatment planning.

From a healthcare professional training perspective, these research findings suggest that clinicians need to learn how to compensate for the inhibition of the social circuitry that occurs when they enage in analytic tasks. Helping clinicians to actively "tune in" to patients' emotional state may help "turn down" their analytic thinking and allow them to respond more effectively to patients' psychosocial needs.