According to Prof. Talma Hendler of Tel Aviv University, the brain activity patterns of the groups members is similar in many cases.
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In one of the final scenes of the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan, Nina, a ballerina played by Natalie Portman, finally loses her grip on reality, hallucinating that black feathers are poking through her skin.
According to Prof. Talma Hendler of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and Sagol School of Neuroscience, the brain activity of audience members watching this dramatic scene resembles that observed in many schizophrenics. “As Nina is getting crazier and crazier, audience members themselves experience something like schizophrenia”, Prof. Hendler said recently at an event sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Two types of empathy
Prof. Hendler and her team of researchers have been investigating networks in the brain that appear to play a role in empathy. She has found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. The first, “mental empathy, ” requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. The second, “embodied empathy, ” is the intuitive, primal empathy you might feel witnessing someone get punched.
At the event, Prof. Hendler presented fMRI brain scan data of subjects who had watched several emotional movies. Audiences who had watched the dramatic scene from the Black Swan, Prof. Hendler found that the “mental empathy” network predominated, while the “embodied empathy” network only flickered to life occasionally – when Nina pulled a feather from her back, for example.
Prof. Hendler has witnessed this pattern, which relies more heavily on the mental empathy network even in the face of a visceral experience, in her schizophrenia patients. “It’s as if they have to think through the emotional impact of situations that other people grasp more intuitively and automatically, ” she said.