Research Shows You Can Be Empathetic or Analytical, But Not at the Same Time

When a CEO cuts out his employee’s Christmas bonuses to save the company money, it doesn’t mean he’s a heartless a-hole devoid of feeling — well, not entirely — it just means that his brain was in analytical mode, not empathetic mode. Your brain can’t look at a situation both equal parts analytic and empathetic at the same time. It’s also why some intelligent people can be taken in by the most obvious of “woe is me” scams.

This is what the research has shown by a study of psychologists and cognitive scientists at Case Western Reserve. Through numerous studies, Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of cognitive science, has found that our brain has one go-to channel for engaging in goal directed tasks and suppresses the other pathway — basically our first thought when confronted with a decision is going to either lean towards empathy or cold-hard logic. This is also why when you look at those paintings where it looks like two different things you can see both, but not at the exact same time. This is called “perceptual rivalry” and according to Anthony Jack our brains have a wide spectrum of this concerning social issues.



“What we see in this study is similar, but much more wide-scale. We see neural inhibition between the entire brain network we use to socially, emotionally and morally engage with others, and the entire network we use for scientific, mathematical and logical reasoning. This shows scientific accounts really do leave something out — the human touch. A major challenge for the science of the mind is how we can better translate between the cold and distant mechanical descriptions that neuroscience produces, and the emotionally engaged intuitive understanding which allows us to relate to one another as people.”

Anthony and his assistants came to this finding by recruiting 45 college students, and asked each to take five 10-minute turns inside a magnetic resonance imager. They were then presented with 40 problems: 20 written and 20 video asking them both how others might feel in certain situations. They were also asked an equal number of problems that required physics to solve. Students had to provide an answer to a yes or no question within seven seconds. What the MRI results from the study showed was that when asked the questions that focused on social consciousness, students brain regions that were associated with analysis were deactivated. The physics questions on the other hand deactivated the brain regions associated with empathizing and activated the analytical network.

The results from the study will hopefully give psychologists a better understanding of developmental disabilities like autism and Williams syndrome where individuals strong ability to solve visuospatial problems, but lack social skills. It also points to why some people — like corporate CEOs — may excel at solving problems that require serious analytical problems, but might be lacking in the moral compass department.


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