Delving deep into the intricate architectural structures of our brains, Eamon Brown discovers that when it comes to our feelings, size matters.

 

As scientists, we set out to find facts; to be hard core guardians of truth in scientific knowledge; to be cold hearted, ruthless, Star Wars fanatics (or Star Trek – which is not as good), chess playing, loser type individuals that so often come across facts that explain other people’s irrational behaviours, or you know, “feelings”.

Yes! It is true! Eureka! We have discovered that parts of your brain (inside of the insular cortex), depending on the size of that part of your brain (also how saturated it is in gray matter ), does have a potential correlated relationship with the way you express or feel empathy – (potential, for those without a BSc or degree in stats, means that nothing is EVER 100 percent one way or the other due to many reasons, mostly data variation, deal with it) If you have ever bothered to look at a neuroscience text book (I know, sounds like a FABULOUS weekend type activity), we have always known about anatomical structures and the way that people behave, particularly, with regards to schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia sufferers have anatomical correlates in their brain, such as enlarged lateral ventricles. We also know that this illness is congenital (meaning it runs in families), which means it can be coded in our genes – the things that make up everything about what and who we are. Unfortunately for patients with schizophrenia, there is no known cure or reversal of the disease once a patient is diagnosed. (Bear M. Et al. Neuroscience; Exploring the Brain. 3rd Ed. 2007 Baltimore). 

This is unlike the research conducted by the Monash neuroscientists who discovered the correlation between brain structure and empathy. They have hypothesised that we are able to alter this part of our brain, making it bigger or smaller. It is the first time this has been speculated, as the school of thought remains that brain structures have always been static and unchangeable from birth (such as its size and structural material called soma).

Yes, understanding people’s feelings and emotions can help with our functionality in society, but if we can learn anything from the movie Equilibrium, it is that we need emotion to provide us with a purpose in life, a motivation. With that said, it is futile to avoid them, stupid to ridicule others for having them (despite the jokes I may make) and responsible to control them.

Essentially, the researchers have discovered the place in the brain where we can understand other people and the situations they are going through, producing an emotional response. They have noted that the size of this insula area will correlate how much or how little we react when we see someone in pain or someone that has just had all of their money stolen etc. What does this mean for us though? Maybe a brain scan during job interviews? The development of clinics to make you more of a person by training you to build up that area of the brain? Honestly, when we do research, we try to anticipate the ethical implications, but we never can be sure what people might do with that information once it is out there.

To be honest, unless you are a neuroscientist or thinking about becoming a psychologist, I am going to say it doesn’t mean much at all to you. It’s fascinating if you can appreciate the science, but we all have that part in our brain, no matter how big or small it is. Perhaps you should just commit a random act of kindness for someone, it might improve the gray matter of your empathy cortex insula.

 

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