By: Livia Blackburne
You could say that fiction is about pain. When you boil them down, stories describe characters taking hits and trying to emerge as unscathed as possible. Neighborhood under attack by zombies? Run hard and hope you have some painkillers on hand if they catch you. Or what if it’s actually a friendly, attractive zombie who loves you? In that case, it’s all good — until you realize that mortals and undead can never be together. Oh the agonies of unfulfilled love!
So stories and torment come hand in hand. As a reader, you’re with the characters, empathizing with their struggles and hoping for a happy ending. How does this work? What is it in our brains that lets us understand other people’s pain? Well I’m glad you asked, because neuroscientists have made some progress on this question.
How do you study empathy and pain? One current technique involves electric shocks and people who love each other.
Neuroscientist Tania Singer came up with a clever experiment. She recruited women with their significant others. Singer put the woman inside an fMRI brain scanner while the significant other sat outside. Both participants were connected to electrodes capable of administering a painful shock. (Now before my fellow neuroscientists accuse me of ruining our reputations, I should emphasize that these participants were paid handsomely and had the option to stop the experiment at any time.)
Throughout the experiment both the woman and her partner received shocks, and a computer screen indicated who was getting the painful treatment. Singer found that a certain network of brain regions in the woman’s brain activated when she was in pain. But what happened when the significant other was shocked instead? The same network lit up when the woman knew that her partner was getting shocked. It turns out that we process other people’s pain with the same brain regions that we use to process our own.
This kind of makes sense. Think about the last time you read a passage about a painful experience. Depending on how engaging the writer was, you might have felt like you were suffering alongside the character. But that’s not the whole story. Many people suffer in stories, but we’re not always upset about it. What happens if the person in pain is someone we don’t like?
Singer and colleagues did another study asking that question. This time, they had participants play a game before the brain scan. Unbeknownst to the participants, some players in the game were actually actors working with the scientists. One actor’s job was to play the game fairly, while the other actor’s job was to play in an obviously unfair way. You can guess which actor was more popular.
Then it was off to the scanner again. The real participant went inside the scanner, while the two actors sat outside. Again, shocks were delivered, and the computer screen indicated who was receiving the shock.
This time, the results depended on whether the participant was a man or a woman. Both genders had empathy-related brain activation when the fair player was in pain. However, the men had less empathy- related activation when the unfair player was shocked. What’s more, they had increased activation in reward-related brain areas when the unfair player got shocked. The men actually enjoyed it when the unfair player was in pain (“Bastard had it coming!”). After the experiment, Singer asked the men to rate their desire for revenge toward the unfair player. It turns out that amount of reward-related brain activation in men correlated with their desire for revenge. In guys at least, it seems that the response to someone else’s pain depends on whether or not that person deserved it.
Now as with all studies, we should remember that this is only one data set and it needs to be replicated. Also, note this study does not distinguish between gender differences based on biology versus social expectations. But it’s still interesting to think about. Could this be why men often gravitate toward action movies with bad guys getting killed by the dozens? In addition to the specific gender difference, this experiment is also a good reminder that readers react differently to the same event. If you want your story to have a certain effect, you need to understand who you’re writing for.
As a writer, what can we learn from this? Well, it’s kinda cool when you think about it. As a writer, you pull the strings and control whether your reader groans in sympathy or sits back and grins. If your audience feels close to the character, if they get to know and like her, they’ll hurt along with her. However, if they see your character’s nasty side, they may find it satisfying when she comes to a painful demise. Also, think about your readers’ expectations. Are they male? Female? Young? Old? Grownups and teens may be able to handle and appreciate a painful bittersweet resolution, but if you’re writing children’s books, perhaps you should think twice before having a Hamlet style ending.
So what kind of pain are you inflicting today?
By day, Livia Blackburne is a neuroscience graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At other times, she writes YA fantasy. On her blog A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing, she looks at writing from a brain scientist’s analytical perspective.
awesome, thought-provoking post! we, the writers, are emotional puppet masters… muwahahaha…
In my last novel the women in my critique group thought my villain didn't suffer enough and I needed to drag out the pain.
The man in my group didn't comment on the amount of violence.
I guess I have a sample of revenge and punishment thirsty women.
Hee Hee Hee
Josin L. McQuein says
Sorry, but I think the results are a one-off deal that got the results the tester was looking for by accident or design.
Women are generally MORE vicious than men when it comes to someone getting their comeuppance. Men like revenge in the moment, but then (again, generally) move past it as penance paid.
Women stew and plan.
Women stew and plan and execute the plan with a follow-through the typical male doesn't bother with.
This is especially true if they've suffered a personal slight.
These sort of shock tests are nothing new, even if this one is current. They've been a part of behavioral science studies for years in one form or another. A common one is to actually put the person being testing in charge of administering the shocks, whether the current actually exists or not, they're told it does. This is to determine the willingness to make another human suffer for a specific goal or greater good.
Yes, women generally empathize, but that same depth of emotion can be turned the other direction with devastating results.
Douglas Morrison says
Is this experiment an affirmation of schadenfreude? Makes me wonder about the levels of fiction. Tabloids dial up the fiction-o-meter to great excess. vnrieker's comment may not be far from true. Did the experiment test the bounds of empathy? Was a little pain ok, therefore suggesting an internal judgement of "acceptability" before the subjects responded?
Extremely interesting post.
Nicole MacDonald says
*hee* that second study sounds like fun!! I know a few people I'd happily try that on *mwahahahaha*
Perry — Haha, that's awesome. I'd like to meet your critique group. Or perhaps I wouldn't…
Josin — The thing to remember with scientific studies is that they are a snapshot of how a single group of people behave under a carefully replicated set of conditions. All studies are "one-off deals" until you combine lots of related studies into a coherent picture. So it's certainly possible, as you suggested, under that other conditions, perhaps involving more of a personal slight or emotional pain, the gender differences might be nonexistant, or in the opposite direction. That said, this is the result they got, and the difference was statistically strong enough to be published, so while you shouldn't run with it and say "All Men Are Jerks!!!", I wouldn't completely dismiss the dataset as an accident either.
Douglas — Great point about schaudenfraude, that and perhaps the need for justice. The paper presents it as saying men are enforcers of "altruistic punishment." Enforcing rules of society and such…
Great post, Livia! I really enjoyed hearing the relevant science behind shadenfreude.
Now if Freud had been in that room, you can just imagine all the theories he would have come up with.
Marilyn Peake says
Your Blog post is fascinating. And congratulations on being a graduate student at M.I.T. – that is awesome! Although my Masters degree is in Clinical Psychology, I did research for my Masters Thesis in the field of Social Psychology and found it absolutely fascinating. My research looked into whether or not varying the characteristics of a person in a newspaper article changed whether or not subjects found them guilty or innocent of a crime for which they were tortured. To my complete horror, changing insignificant, minor details about the person in the newspaper article did have an influence.
Marilyn — Those are indeed depressing results…
Great article. You might be very interested in key word "presponse"
heres a starting link to cut and paste.
Presponse involves the field interaction of mind with matter. The crux of the issue is; if I put all the posters on this board in a chair in front of a screen upon which I would then display 100 pictures while they were wired to sensor devices; the sensors would light up with a distress response slightly before they actually were shown the 1-out of-10 pictures inserted of traumatic content.
In terms of writing being the author is akin to trying to be a noble dungeon master in a role playing game.
I try to write ensemble cast pieces with a small circle of main players (each supported by a sub cast) interweaving their interactions towards a shared goal or outcome each understands differently; while providing sub quests and obstacles along the way as a framework to explore each characters depth.
Men insist on fair play to insure the survival of the group as a whole. It's genetically programmed into us. Some of us are wingmen and some of us are pilots some of us are bombardiers and some of us are tail gunners; but one way or another we all want to take off, achieve the missions goal and land. We paint women's pictures on the plane to remind us of why we do it; and also to remind us of who got us into this mess in the first place when we crash in the desert.
Oh good – I was hoping Nathan would pick yours, Livia. It's fascinating, and a very different and intelligent take on writing.
I think it's very interesting to think about your WIP, your audience and how to appeal to them. I think as we understand the science of the mind more and more, we'll understand more about why some books really hit it out of the ballpark. It can tell us a great deal about human nature, and the impact of story.
In terms of the actual research, I would be very interested if these results holds true over age and socioeconomic status.
But assuming they do, well, that requires a total change of tone to my post, doesn't it? Because I think this explains ALOT about the world. For example, it explains why men want to be in charge of the world, and, quite frankly, why they should never, ever, ever, ever be allowed to be in charge of the world.
Pleasure out of revenge and conquest – well, that's war, in all of it's various forms, isn't it?
Of course we knew men started wars, but now we have another idea of WHY.
No offense to male readers, of course, I just think that if this research stands, you would be better off watching sports games on the weekend, and leave the running of the world to the other gender.
Brodi Ashton says
Fascinating post! Makes me anxious to go inflict pain on my characters. (That was the intent, wasn't it?)
LOL you make me laugh, esp that part about the sports games. Thank you 🙂
Man, I feel like I need to jump in and defend men now that I've attacked them with a big fat science club over the head. I think there are times when you do want people who find the punishing of unfair people to be rewarding. After all, if you have a functioning society, you need to find and punish the rule rreakers, and it's good to have people who are motivated to do that. Say for example if you are hunting murderers or child molesters, then you want someone who is really gung ho about tracking him down.
Livia: it must be totally awesome to say you are a brain scientist!
This is an interesting study: particularly for its focus on the areas of the brain where one feels empathy and not so much about empathizing (if one does or not).
Josin, I have to take issue with that generalization of yours. Maybe sociopathic women! Or the occasional teenage girl. Plus, wanting to see someone get their comeuppance doesn't necessarily equal vicious thoughts of violence and pain. I wouldn't mind the snooty man to be taken down a notch, but I don't want to see him get hit by a car! Perhaps I'm off and not getting your message, but my feminism got stirred.
Kristin Laughtin says
Fascinating post! Like others said, though, women can be quite vindictive and vengeful, too. It'd be interesting to see the results of related experiments where the nature of the unfairness was altered. I expect many women might have more moments of schadenfreude if they'd been personally slighted than they do when dealing with a cheater in a game.
I've hunted and captured the worst of the worst. The type of predators who hunt again forgetting how many bodies have been left unburied or even uneaten. (retired)
Sometimes the female thinker-intellectual forgets how hard it might be for a man who is trained his whole life to always protect and never to strike a female to then be alone with a female who then insists on taking her clothes off and teaching him how to torture her exactly the way she likes to be tortured to enter a state ecstasy.
That's what it feels like for a man who is well raised to learn how to shed his inhibitions and become an animal in a mutually consenting race towards sexual bliss. It feels like you are being slowly retrained to be a sadistic-penetrate. Have you ever considered how scary it might be for a boy to "take" a girls virginity at her polite and very clever entrapping encouragement. Women like to see men as cold blooded because it turns them on. But, they always want to "retrain" the nice ones. It's all actually quite logical. A woman can never imagine what it's like to "take" a woman unless she's a well developed healthy dominant lesbian. It's an art form. Hence the recent mega success of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." because it explores loving women from the man's point of view. The guy (writer)actually died when the series was finished. That my fellow writer aspirants is dedication 10.0 TEN point OHhhhh.
Fortunately I have known 4-5 women who truly loved me romantically plus a vast group of female family relationships across four generations.
Women are complicated. PERIOD.
Luvia – good point. That type of motivation is good for a Hunter of any type, and undoubtedly helped the species survive.
I felt alittle guilty as well, pointing the finger at an entire gender. I don't have any issue with men being keen on Justice. That's a good thing.
This is a great post, Livia! It's great to have research and writing paired up – long overdue!
Steppe, men are complicated, too. 🙂 I'm sorry if it seemed like I was putting down men – I was partly teasing and partly making a point – but not my intent to dismiss an entire gender. Sorry if it seemed like I was.
Rick Daley says
Great post, interesting experiment.
It reminds me of the scene in Ghostbusters when Bill Murray shocks the guy even though he's right and doesn't shock the girl because she's pretty. Except this experiment has more integrity.
Stephen Prosapio says
Ahhh. This makes sense. Using a football-related analogy, I used to feel for my Charger friends when their team lost, but due to more details than I'll get into here, now it matters little and I actually enjoy seeing the Chargers lose. (I know other lisa will hate me now!)
Anyway, this week I'm inflicting both emotional and physical pain on my MCs. More emotional than physical and I'm trying to make the situations as complex and gray-area-d as I can.
I think that study would be fascinating if both participants were female. Think about how women work very hard to inflict emotional wounds, usually in way that won't obviously trace back to them. Give them little buttons to push that shocks the other, and I'm betting both of them end up with some hot fillings in their teeth.
Or maybe it's just me. Who knows?
Either way, it's an excellent thought-provoking post.
neat, interesting post. different.
Thanks so much for the post. It sent my mind spinning into all sorts of directions. A nice break in the middle of a long work day.
Claire Dawn says
Amazing post as always, Livia. So much to think about.
Sheila Cull says
Such an interesting subject and well written. Congratulations!
Rick — Lol. Perhaps to be safe, one should beautify oneself before participating in any psych experiments.
Kathryn Magendie says
Love this – but I'm kind of a "science/brain-stuff" geek —
Love peeking inside how our brains work, and pulling it into the writing – dang cool.
Julie Kingsley says
Holy crap! My brain is buzzing from this one. My first question is who would sign up for this experiment? Ouch!
In my former life I was a seventh grade writing teacher. I always had a free choice project going, and I must admit, the boys loved pain and darkness in their writing. But, I do think they they experienced less of it. The girls, however, were often living lives full of drama and chaos. They'd gather in the bathroom, huge packs of PMS Princesses, and try to work through it all.
Now that I hang out at my computer every day, I'm enjoying the drama. All I can say is, bring it on! Does that make me a sicko? Nah, I'd rather be a PMS Princess.
ryan field says
I've enjoyed all the posts this week. But this one in particular was very interesting.
John Jack says
The flaws of that study or the intepretation or conclusions pre-assume four questionable premises based on personal projections, albeit the kind of premises that feed and self-reinforce and come out of groupthink. That empathy is good. That pain is bad. That punishing misbehavior is proper. That finding humor in the misfortune of others is improper.
Empathy is a natural and automatic response to pitiable and/or fearful or other emotional situations. It's not because empapthy feels other beings' pain, it's because external pain is internalized by empathy. In extreme situations an excess of empathy is crippling or a lack of empathy is considered sociopathic. Society projects a preference for some middle normative value for the good of society, but society is a majority rules tyrrant dictating what's proper and shunning or condemning outliers because of their strangeness.
Pain is a sentinel warning that something with the body is awry. A good thing when there's an unhealthy condition. Pain is good in that regard. But chronic pain leads to self-serving treatment with dangerous obscuring consequences. Drug addiction, alcohol addiction, addiction to steroids and pain blocks. Then there's histrionic personality types who thrive on emotional pain because it gets them attention to alleviate their feelings of inadequacy.
Therefore, punishing misbehavior too often rewards misbehavior.
Finding humor in the misfortune of others comes back around to empathy, but inverted. External acts internalized as humor instead of emotional pain. It also comes back around to punishing misbehavior through shaming, embarrassing loss of face. Which, again, is society dictating behaviors.
It takes all kinds to makeup a healthy society. Without outliers to compel change, strengthen vitality, and set outlying examples of unwanted and desirable behaviors, there'd be a pea green soup world of apathetic, stagnant, dreary monocultural sameness.
Thank Providence for the outliers.
You're right that pain and empathy are not necessarily a priori good or bad. To use a rather disturbing example, someone with high empathy would be a very skilled torturer/interrogator, because she would be able to understand how her victim feels, and would be able to devise the best techniques for inflicting the most pain and extracting the most information. It all depends on context.
Interesting post considering that my blog post yesterday was about also character empathy. However, I'm afraid I don't have the same eloquence as Ms. Blackburne. The study still doesn't explain the real reason why we can empathize. That's what I want to know.
John Jack says
Social beings empathize because, There but for the grace of Providence go we. We find pathos vicariously infuential. We don't like loss. Loss to others is loss we internalize and process emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually, and perhaps recreationally.
Empathy is a natural instinct for learning survival skills from internalizing others' losses.
Know thy enemy. Know thy friends, family, acquaintances. Know and own thy mistakes, frailties, foibles, and failings. From knowing comes understanding, compassion, wisdom, and reasoned responses.
Brooke – That's the million dollar question! Ask a scientist and they would say we evolved the trait as social animals, to help us have better functioning societies, thus livign longer and reproducing more. Ask a philosopher or theologian, I bet you'll get something very different 🙂
Valerie Norris says
Excellent blog post! Helps me understand men a little more. Thanks!
Deb Salisbury says
Fascinating post! When I think about it, the people I know generally fit the results.
Eileen Andrews says
I can see how women are more likely to cause emotional pain than men. But I think men are more likely to adopt roles of power and extort them. I think the Stanford Prison Experiment showed that (granted it was only men). Men are also motivated to violence easier.
Either way, tis a wonderful way to torture our characters.
*rubs hands with glee*
Livia – I always love your posts. What a brilliant way to rethink a familiar subject.
Fawn Neun says
Haha – not sure this needed to be verified by science, but… *lulz*
Fawn – Oh snap!
Mira, not at all offended. This is the great subject of most writing the planter verses harvester in us all.
These issues are the nexus for so many great books. Growing up in the seventies there was always a socio-cultural question thinkers asked each other: "Have you read WAR AND PEACE?" I was twenty-five before I could say yes. It was awesome and I was bummed it didn't go on for an extra 1000 more pages.
Mindy MacKay says
So very true! As a writer and a first-year psychology student, it's interesting to see how the two fields overlap. I've given this some thought before, but this post really put it into terms I could understand and filled in the little blank-spots of cluelessness I encountered in previous pondering. Great post!
Alice Benton says
This was both fantastic and inspiring!