The experience of empathy is both intuitive and abstract. Empathy has different definitions, but it is often described as the ability to understand another person’s situation, emotion, or point of view, without actually experiencing it yourself. Scientists do not completely understand precisely because we are empathetic, but the benefits are obvious. Empathy is what allows people to build emotional bridges, allowing for compassion and help.
And while empathy may seem like an unstoppable reflex – you see someone in pain, then you feel for them and their pain – that’s not necessarily the case. Research suggests that some people will, at times, avoid feeling empathy because it requires excessive mental effort; it may seem cognitively expensive to carry someone else̵
Scientists at the University of Sussex show that the brains of uncontrolled drinkers make a greater effort to feel empathy for other people than the brains of people who do not drink excessively. In this study, binge drinking was defined as consuming more than 60 grams of pure alcohol during a single session at least once in the past 30 days. That’s about three-quarters of a bottle of wine or 2.5 pints of lager.
The discovery seems particularly important considering the state of the world, when empathy is likely critical to survival. We are also drinking more during Covid-19, a lot more.
At the start of the pandemic, alcohol sales were classified as essential businesses, and in March, alcohol sales increased compared to 2019. Researchers looking at our drinking habits say it’s too early to know the effects for long. end of pandemic consumption, but a recent survey of 320 Canadian adult drinkers suggests people use alcohol to cope with Covid-19. Increased alcohol consumption, increased alcohol consumption, and strong motivations to drink were each independently associated with experiencing “alcohol problems” over 30 days.
Theodora Duka is a professor at the University of Sussex and lead author of the study on binge drinking and empathy. He explained to me that his team’s data shows that uncontrolled drinkers have to work harder to feel empathy for other people who suffer, as evidenced by the increase in brain activity compared to uncontrolled drinkers.
“What this means in everyday life is that people who drink uncontrollably may find it difficult to perceive the pain of others as easily as non-binge drinkers do,” explains Duka. “It’s not that uncontrolled drinkers feel less empathy, it’s just that they have to put in more brain resources to be able to do it.
“However, under certain circumstances, when resources become limited, uncontrolled drinkers may find it difficult to engage in an empathic response to others.”
“… people who drink uncontrollably may have a hard time perceive pain of others with the same ease with which non-binge drinkers do it. “
In the study, 71 participants, some from France and others from the UK, had their brain activity observed in fMRI scanners while performing a “pain perception task”. All were sober during the observation, but half of the participants were classified as uncontrolled drinkers.
In the activity, participants were shown an image of an injured limb. They were then asked to imagine that the limb belonged to them or to another person. They were then told to declare how much pain was associated with the image. The study’s goal, Duka says, was to “extend recent evidence that uncontrolled drinkers show reduced empathy using an objective method of perceiving pain in themselves or in a stranger” and measure that response with brain imaging. .
“By identifying how the brain responds to painful stimuli that normally involve empathy, we can better understand some of the mechanisms that lead to binge drinking behavior,” he says.
The experiment revealed that binge drinking participants had a harder time adopting another person’s perspective. That struggle was highlighted in their brains. In the “pain-other condition”, a visual area of the brain involved in the recognition of body parts showed higher levels of activation in the brains of uncontrolled drinkers alone. This region is called the Fusiform Body Area (FBA).
Duka describes the discovery of FBA as “intriguing” and hopes people will view his research through “the assumption that empathy is important for optimal social interaction.” It helps us understand and respond to the needs of others, and it seems important to prevent young adults from drinking too much. Previous studies have found that a decrease in empathy is associated with an increase in alcohol consumption in people between the ages of 13 and 20.
How can we apply this finding to our current pandemic-motivated alcohol situation? Duka has this advice:
“All I can say is try not to drink too much, be empathetic and always try to understand and respond to the needs of others.”