Empathy Training: Stimulating Brain Neural Connections Through a Video Game

    Human emotions, like any other phenomenon, are controlled by certain mechanisms and laws, in this case, the human body, or rather the brain. When you see a crying person, you understand that he is saddened (grieve, sadness, etc.). Understanding this, you can either pass by or empathize with this person. Empathy is often called empathy, and it is not the default setting of our brain from birth. It needs to be developed. For some, this is faster and more natural, for others, empathy is dulled. Someone may burst into tears while watching the movie “Hachiko,” while others may not even brow when watching a documentary about Auschwitz. Any human skill depends on the state of the systems of his body, on the influence of his parents, society as a whole, and so on.

    Scientists decided to investigate empathy and chose the most suitable subjects - adolescents for this, because their skills are not yet fully formed. Is it possible to accelerate the development of empathy, is it possible to “instill” it, and what processes take place in the brain at the moment of empathy? A video game developed by scientists specifically for this study served as a tool for finding answers. What results have shown tests we learn through a report from scientists. Go.

    What is empathy?

    Empathy is a conscious empathy with the emotions of another person. In other words, if your interlocutor is sad or fun, but you understand it and experience similar emotions, regardless of whether you show them or not.

    Let's dig a little deeper into the description of the term empathy. Firstly, the word “conscious” is important. A person empathizing with the interlocutor fully understands that the emotions he experiences are a projection of the emotions of the interlocutor, and not his personal state. If a person does not understand this, then this phenomenon is called identification, when a person puts himself in the place of the interlocutor, as if trying on his emotions and condition on himself, considering the “borrowed” emotions as his own.

    Empathy, as you might guess, plays an important role in professions based on social interaction: doctors, teachers, religious figures, politicians, etc.

    It is worth noting that a person is able to identify the emotional state of the interlocutor without direct confirmation thereof (crying, laughing, screaming, etc.). Sometimes a person can hide his condition for one reason or another, but such factors as speech, facial expressions, body position, directivity of his gaze, selection of words are clues to unravel his emotions. The ability to recognize all these, sometimes subtle, details are important in the above professions, especially in medicine. Not surprisingly, psychiatrists with higher empathic abilities are more likely to correctly diagnose patients who often do not intend to lay out all their complaints and describe the details of the symptoms.

    Everyone has empathy, but its level is different. In 2004, one of the most common tests was developed that determines the degree of empathy of the respondent - Empathy Quotient (test option in English and Russian ).

    Dr. Peter Sifneos (1920-2008)

    Sometimes deviations occur, leading to a decrease or complete absence of empathy in humans. Back in 1968, Peter Sifneos published a work in which he described his observations of patients in a psychiatric hospital. He noted that some of them cannot verbally express their or other people's emotions, they reason exclusively from the position of logic and do not have the ability to fantasize. A similar deviation was called alexithymia, which in Greek means "without words for feelings." Further studies have confirmed that the vast majority of people with autism are in a state of secondary alexithymia. It has not yet been possible to fully understand the mechanism of the occurrence of this disorder, and to find a way to treat it.

    Similar disorders, like empathy itself, originate in the brain, the work of which defines a person as a person. In the 90s of the last century, the so-called “mirror” neurons were described, which are activated when a person (or animal) repeats the actions committed by another person (or animal). This led scientists to the idea that it was these neurons that play a crucial role in emotional empathy.

    Empathy, like any other aspect of the human brain, can be described for a very, very long time. However, we already understood the main essence of this phenomenon. Researchers, on the other hand, did not focus on describing the etymology of the empathy process, but on studying the possible learning ability and stimulating the development of this, so to speak, social skill.

    Study basis

    When it comes to emotions, naturally the person will be the most important element of the experiment. As subjects in the study of empathy, adolescents were chosen, and not just. First of all, many studies conducted earlier confirmed that the emotional state of adolescents is extremely unstable due to the low level of self-control and the ability to properly express emotions. In order to formulate the correct emotional response to any situation, including the emotions of the interlocutor, a person turns to two main sources of knowledge: intuition and experience. The first implies not banal guessing, but the result of the work of our brain. The second, as the name implies, is based on the experience of similar situations in the past in which a person has been. If a person did not have social activity, he cannot fully seize empathy, despite the fact that this skill is inherent in each of us. This is akin to speech - if a child does not hear speech, then he will not learn to speak, even though he has both vocal cords and a developed brain for this. Despite the importance of experience, the researchers nevertheless used precisely the category of people whose experience was minimal as subjects. This was done on purpose, in order to check whether their methodology is able to help develop or develop empathy, and subsequently correctly apply the acquired skills in real communication in society.

    As the basis of their methodology, one of the most popular entertainment methods for many teenagers (which is a sin, and for adults too) was chosen - video games. According to studies, children aged 8 to 18 spend an average of 73 minutes a day on video games. In addition to the popularity of this entertainment, the fact of its unobtrusiveness is also important. Nobody likes to be forced to do something, be it studies or some kind of strange tests. The game allows you to get the necessary data for the study, while minimizing the pressure on the subject, which will allow you to get much more realistic indicators.

    The subjects were divided into 2 groups: Crystals of Kaydor and Bastion. These are two games, the first of which was developed by a research team. The player acts as a robot that was shipwrecked on an unknown planet. He needs resources for repair and survival. The planet is inhabited by unusual creatures with which the player will have to interact. It is this communication that is the basis of the experiment, since in different situations the aliens will express one of the 6 main emotions: joy, sadness, disgust, anger, fear and surprise. The player must either correctly identify this emotion, or correctly respond to it. It is also possible to train with recognition of the severity of a particular emotion (by moving the slider, the severity of the emotion changes from subtle to pronounced).

    Bastion is a commercial game and was not specifically designed for the experiment. However, the narrative in the game is very intertwined with emotional events, the characters are also sad, angry and scared. The difference from Crystals of Kaydor is the lack of facial expression of emotions. Therefore, Bastion is a control group. Among other things, I would personally like to note the musical accompaniment in the Bastion game, which also plays a significant role in the formation of one or another emotional background, which can affect the player’s emotional response.

    Image No. 1: elements of the game Crystals of Kaydor:
    а - the main menu of the game;
    b - the player must choose one of 6 emotions that the character shows on the left;
    c- a screen for calibrating the severity of emotion from weak to pronounced;
    d - the player must choose what emotion to respond to the character on the left;
    e is the character’s response to the player’s response;
    f - a mini-game where the player must help the aliens find some kind of object.

    Using the game as a research tool was also inspired by the fact that previously conducted testing of prosocial behavior * among adolescents using the game Lemmings. The results were more than satisfactory.
    Prosocial behavior * - human actions that benefit other people or society as a whole.
    Another example from the past was the study of the effectiveness of using the emotional component in terms of increasing productivity. Two groups of students received the same task, but the implementation was excellent. The first, control, group was to complete the task, based on visual and textual materials. And the second group interacted with each other, using the role-playing model. And it was this group that showed a significantly higher result in speed and accuracy of the assignment.

    Promotional video of the game Crystals of Kaydor

    The main goal of the study was to understand whether it is possible to train a person in empathy or improve the level of this skill. Thus, the researchers decided to use modern computer technology in conjunction with neurobiological tests to form a socially significant skill. It sounds very non-standard, but we have long understood that being an explorer means thinking outside the box.

    Research results

    So that the test results were as reliable and accurate as possible, all outliers * were removed from them . A comparison was also made of the results of the analysis of data from subjects of both groups before the experiment ( T1 ) and after ( T2 ) to see if their empathic abilities changed. The threshold was set as indicators 4 / (NP) , wherein N - sample size, and the P - the number of parameters in the model.
    Outlier * is a measurement result that does not fall under the general distribution.
    In addition, intra-group tests were conducted aimed at identifying significant changes in the degree of empathy of one or more subjects within each of the two groups. This check also confirmed that there were no significant differences between the two groups in any of the dependent variables.

    Significant results of the ROI analysis (area of ​​interest) were subject to correction of the group error probability by the Hill-Bonferroni method.

    By means of fMRI * , MRI * and DTI * visual data on the state of the brain of each of the subjects were obtained. To analyze this data, FSL software was used .
    fMRI * - functional magnetic resonance imaging is performed to observe changes in the blood flow caused by neural activity.

    MRI * - magnetic resonance imaging is performed to obtain topographic images of organs.

    DTI * - diffusion spectral tomography allows you to reconstruct nerve pathways in the brain.

    Table No. 1: statistics of various variables.

    Changes to rsfMRI

    In order to see the effect of the game on the degree of empathy, it is necessary to examine the subject’s brain, or rather analyze the relationship between the areas of the prefrontal cortex and the right temporal-parietal node, since this area is responsible, among other things, for the social actions of a person.

    vmPFC - ventromedial prefrontal cortex (motivation for social reward and understanding of its value);
    dmPFC - dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (perception of other people / unlike themselves);
    mPFC - medial prefrontal zone (perception of oneself / people like oneself).

    rTPJ - right temporoparietal junction in charge of information processing in terms of the ability to maintain attention.

    Image No. 2

    Figure 2a shows important distinguishing features of the subject playing the Crystals of Kaydor and the subject playing the Bastion. In the first, areas in the PPC (posterior dark cortex) were activated, and the active zone of dmPFC was significantly larger (yellow) than that of the player in Bastion (his activity is marked in red).

    Analyzing the photographs of the participants from the first group (Crystals of Kaydor), a persistent relationship was revealed between the areas shown in blue in picture 2b . As we see this connection in the subjects of the second group (Bastion) does not differ in persistence and severity.

    Empathic accuracy

    In addition to analyzing changes in the strength of the connection between the areas of the prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal ganglion, the amygdala was also observed, which plays a very important role in storing emotional information, a kind of emotional memory. When you recall an event, it is this area that allows you to “recall” its emotional background.

    Specifically, the relationship between vmPFC / dmPFC and the right amygdala was exposed. Why is it right? The fact is that in the list of tasks of this part of the brain there is a very important point for testing - face recognition. In addition, the right amygdala is also responsible for certain human emotions (fear and sadness), compares the place and time with the emotional background, and also participates in the formation of long-term memory.

    Given that one of the most important elements of a game created by researchers is the task of “reading” faces to determine emotions, the analysis of this area is not justified, but extremely important.

    It was found that the subjects of the first group (Crystals of Kaydor) at the end of the test more accurately determined the emotions of both other people and themselves. This also confirmed the hypothesis that strengthening empathic skills increases control over their own emotions, because the subjects recognize them better. No matter how strange it may sound, adolescents sometimes express emotions not to the extent that they should. We all know these stereotypes about imbalance, lack of control, denial of elders and so on. This behavior is regulated by the brain. If the skills of this body are improved, then the above problems of social integration are leveled, as if by themselves. The graphs below show that the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is better for group No. 1 than for group No. 2,

    Image No. 3: changes in the connectivity indices of the brain regions of the subjects of one group before and after the study; a - the connection of the amygdala and vmPFC; b - connection of the amygdala and dmPFC.

    For a more detailed acquaintance with the study (analysis data, additional materials, measurement procedures), I highly recommend reading the scientists report.

    The official website of the game Crystals of Kaydor .


    Researchers honestly say that their work is only the first step in understanding the mechanism of human empathy. At the moment, the study of the brain and its functions is becoming easier thanks to the use of modern technologies in research. From MRI to video games. It is necessary to use any available tools to achieve a complete understanding of the work of the most important human organ. After all, it is the brain that is responsible for what we are, how we interact with the environment, how we form social bonds and even moral standards. Scientists are confident that their study will inspire many others who can help not only adolescents integrate faster and more efficiently, but also people whose asociality is associated not with age, but with a certain disorder. As mentioned at the beginning of the article,

    My personal opinion is that helping teenagers more “smoothly” go through the stage of emotional development and, most importantly, in the right direction is good. However, adolescents are not the main ones in this study, they were chosen because they are excellent subjects due to unformed emotional experience and increased emotional intuition. Teenagers will grow up, and if their environment, including parents, will direct them on the right path, then they most likely will not have problems with empathic skills and, as a result, social interactions. I do not take into account unique and non-standard cases.

    But people suffering from various disorders will not outgrow them, no matter how many years have passed, whatever environment they have. Medically maintaining an acceptable state is not an option, it is only a disguise for the problem, so that society looks at such a person without disgust and does not twist a finger at the temple. Who cares about those who cannot socialize normally (like everyone else). Did they have a choice? And could they control their brain? Is it possible for a person to make a sore throat during a cold or by force of will reduce the pain in the finger that hit the hammer? No, he can not. Yogis, superheroes and other non-standard situations do not count. I'm talking about an ordinary person. An ordinary person with an unusual problem. Therefore, no matter how naive and insignificant this study may seem, I am glad that it exists.

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