Neuroscientist Jorge Moll Studies the Possibility of Teaching Empathy

Jorge Moll Takes Study To The Public

Complex emotional responses such as empathy have traditionally been viewed as something you either have or you don’t. Individuals who lag behind their peers in empathetic prowess have often been viewed as being autistic and, in extreme cases, have even been labeled as psychopaths. While various treatments and therapies exist for people with these issues, they can only go so far in improving the quality of life for the patient and those around them.

However, recent research from neuroscientist Dr. Jorge Moll has opened new possibilities for methods that could be used to help people train their brains to experience complex emotions such as empathy and altruism. Read on for a look at these studies and how they may help change our conception of what is possible for the human brain.


Study Setup


Although past research has been able to isolate which portions of the brain are responsible for simple emotions, the study in question was created with the idea that more complex emotions, such as empathy, actually arise from numerous portions of the brain at once. The team of researchers felt that if they could train a computer to recognize the specific patterns in the brain that represent empathy or altruism, they could then take a step toward encouraging participants to elicit these emotions by choice.

“Other groups have been mapping single brain regions related to emotions, but to map complex emotions such as empathy, it is important to look at several parts of the brain at the same time,” said Dr. Jorge Moll, the study’s lead researcher. “We wanted not only to map these emotions but to allow people to train these emotions.”

To this end, the scientists working on the study had participants sit in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and then focus their minds on times in their life when they felt empathy or tenderness. While doing this, the researchers analyzed their brain and looked for common patterns of activity that they could then confidently associate with the emotions they were seeking to elicit.

Once researchers had a model for these emotions, they moved on to a second phase of the study. In this phase, participants were asked to view a computer screen while their brains were being scanned. The screen displayed the image of a ring that would become more focused the closer the participant’s brain aligned with the idealized pattern of empathy that researchers had uncovered. In this way, participants had a visual clue to provide feedback as they sought to recall emotional responses that would show up in the scanner as empathy or altruism.


About the Researcher


Head researcher Dr. Jorge Moll has made a name for himself by conducting these types of studies in his exploration of the brain. With a particular interest in the neural components that control human choice and social behavior, his research often focusses on how humans interact with one another. His work is also shaped by the study of how morals and values modify our behavior, a subset of neurology that has often led him to examine questions of ethics, altruism, and generosity.

Jorge’s work has repeatedly been recognized by others in his field. His accolades have led him to work at prestigious institutions such as Stanford University and the National Institutes of Health. In addition to his work with these institutions, he also serves as the president and director of the D’Or Institute for Research and Education, a non-profit organization which he founded in 2010.

Dr. Jorge Moll graduated in medicine from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 1994. He later completed his medical residency in neurology from that same institution. He obtained his Ph.D. in Human Physiology from the medical school of São Paulo University in 2004.


Research Findings


As the team of researchers conducted the study mentioned above, they began to see that they could indeed affect the brain patterns displayed by participants through the use of visual feedback. Participants were able to take cues from ring displayed on their screen and use it to more closely align their brain with the empathy map the researchers had created. In essence, the participants were able to display a higher degree of empathy on command.

These results provoked cautious optimism among the study’s researchers as well as the broader scientific community. If participants could be trained to elicit a complex emotional response such as empathy, then the possibility existed that this technique could be used to train others.


Broader Applications


Though the results are still recent, and the approach is still in its early stages, many involved with the study found that the potential applications were quite exciting. This method could be used to help those struggling with anger, or violent emotions. It could also be used to help someone with an antisocial personality disorder or those with an inability to read the feelings of their peers. As Dr. Jorge Moll puts it, the results of the study could have far-flung uses for those seeking to “reduce unwanted feelings.”

There are, however, limits to the applications envisioned by the team. For instance, they are skeptical that the results could be used for people who have never felt the emotion of empathy before. This is because the technique centers on participants recalling past experiences and cultivating them on command. Therefore, the technique may not be effective for those diagnosed as true psychopaths, since they may not have a history of empathy from which to draw emotions from.

Overall the results from the researchers are interesting and leave the door open for an array of further studies. Members of the team are optimistic that their findings can be used to help people with a variety of conditions, from autism to anger management issues. These types of exciting results are becoming typical for Dr. Jorge Moll, who has made a name for himself by expanding our conception of what is possible for the human brain. As he and others continue their exploration into the very nature of our thoughts, more fascinating research is likely to emerge in the not too distant future.

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