A want of sentiment

An international team led by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York, for the first time showed that one area of the brain, the anterior insular cortex, is the activity center of human empathy.

This has been known for about three years, when the first papers spoke of the finding in 2012.  The study was published in the September 2012 issue of the journal Brain.

Empathy, the ability to perceive and share another person's emotional state, has been described by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.  In the past decade, however, scientists have used powerful functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify several regions in the brain that are associated with empathy for pain.  This most recent study firmly establishes that the anterior insular cortex is where the feeling of empathy originates.

What is new is the discovery that, especially for millennials and those coming behind them, the preponderance of time spent in front of screens of various sorts, technology in general, gadgets that are with us even in bed, even in the bathroom, with news of horrors and terror attacks blazing away daily nonstop, has been shrinking that area designated as the empathy center.

Some hypothesize that if it has in fact shrunk, perhaps it can grow at some later time where we are less "plugged in."  But when would that time be?  When might we hypothesize a shift in our ingrained habits of dragging technology virtually everywhere we go?

This diminution of empathy may be why some younger people are committing crimes not seen in past centuries, and why there has been a notable absence of affect while doing them, or even while being sentenced.  Horror films, and their popularity, ought by now not to exist, since they artfully craft cruelty, ways to ingeniously make humans bleed and die.  Why would the genre not be done with by now?  Is the empathy button now on Off, replaced with "entertain me"?

The shrinkage augurs poorly for the development of solid relationships, it would seem.  Are the adolescents and millennials going into careers not necessitating empathy, such as medicine and rescue, emergency and fire squads, baby care, nursing, and therapy?

Though this brief piece is scarcely in-depth on the complex topic of the brain and the complicated reactions people have to emotional stimuli, it is an intriguing hint of more to come from the medical research bent on uncovering what moves us – or fails to.

The next few years will demonstrate whether the empathy exhaustion in the smaller anterior insular cortex is sending newbies into alternative careers rather than ones demanding feeling and sentiment.  Reach out and feel what's happening.

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