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In the dystopian novel “The Tale of the Maid,” by the British writer Margaret Atwood, the innumerable injustices committed against the central character, Offred, find echo in most readers.
When the young woman is hit with a cattle prod we can almost feel her pain. And we are disgusted by the terrible injustice of his imprisonment.
The description is so disturbing because we know that every scene in this fictional work was inspired by historical events.
“If I had to create an imaginary garden I wish the toads in it were real,” Atwood said of his work in the New York Times .
We easily put ourselves in the place of Offred and feel empathy towards her.
His suffering touches our human capacity to feel what others feel.
In fact, when we see the suffering of another person, the areas of our brain that regulate pain are activated .
But our own emotional state affects our capacity for empathy.
Our emotions change the way our brain responds to other people, even when they suffer.
And especially when we feel bad emotionally, this emotional state affects how we relate to our environment.
Mood can influence behavior in many ways. From our friendships to what we choose to eat (when we feel bad we eat less healthy things).
When our friends are depressed or discouraged, their status can be contagiousand make us feel dejected.
Negative moods can spread even through social networks , according to a study published in 2017.
Our emotions are so powerful that if we feel good, we experience less pain when we have a wound.
In other words, positivity has an effect similar to an analgesic.
In the case of negative emotions the effect is opposite: the pain we experience when we have a wound increases.
And what’s worse, a recent study published in December of 2017 showed that when we feel bad emotionally this affects our innate ability to respond to another person who feels pain.
Our negativity reduces our empathy.
Emilie Qiao-Tasserit and colleagues at the University of Geneva wanted to understand how emotions affect reactions to the suffering of others.
For this the researchers designed an experiment, in which they made the participants feel more and more pain by increasing the temperature of a device attached to their legs.
The scientists also scanned the brain of the participants while they saw fragments of positive and negative films, and shorts of other people who experienced pain.
Those who first saw negative films and then short films of people suffering, recorded less activity in the areas of the cerebral cortex related to pain: the anterior insula and the middle cingulate gyrus.
These areas are usually activated when we see other people in pain or experience pain ourselves.
“In other words, negative emotions can suppress our brain’s ability to be sensitive to the pain of others,” Qiao-Tasserit said.
This investigation is revealing. It shows that emotions can literally change the state of our brain . And in doing so our own feelings modify how we perceive those of other people.
Another study also conducted by Qiao-Tasserit found that after watching a negative film, people tend to judge the neutral face of another person in a more negative way.
These results have real and global implications .
If a person with power, for example a boss or boss, has been exposed to something negative, even something as simple as a movie, it could be less sensitive to a colleague who suffers or even sees it in a negative way. Our bad moods make us less receptive to other people’s feelings.
Lack of empathy also has other consequences.
The reduction in empathy results in fewer donations to charitable organizations, according to some studies. And tests with brain scans revealed that negative emotions also diminish empathy towards those who are not part of our closest social circle.
But why is it that negative emotions reduce empathy?
The key could be in a specific type of empathy, called ” emphatic anguish.“
The researcher Olga Klimecki , also from the University of Geneva, pointed out that empathic anguish is “the feeling of being overcome” when something bad happens to another person, which in turn leads us to protect ourselves from negative emotions.
This type of empathy corresponds even to a brain activity different from that of common empathy.
It is also possible that any situation that arouses negative emotions leads us to focus more on our own problems.
“People with anxiety or depression who experience an excess of negative emotions have a greater tendency to focus on their problems and feel isolated,” said Qiao-Tasserit.
A study by Klimecki and his colleagues in 2016 even found that empathic anguish increases aggression.
Klimecki highlights a key element. In her extensive work on empathy, the scientist has shown that it is possible to cultivate compassionate behavior.
We can then be trained in compassionate and empathetic feelings , according to Klimecki. Our emotional responses to others are not fixed.
It is possible to reawaken our inner empathy, even in the face of other people’s suffering.
And if we train ourselves to think more positively, we will pay more attention to the needs of others.
“This can help improve the quality of our relationships, a key factor in happiness,” Qiao-Tasserit said.
So maybe it’s a good idea to better regulate the time you spend reading dystopian novels or watching horror movies.
And the next time you’re in a bad mood, think about the effect this can have on the people around you.