When the brain activates the network related to social tasks, it suppresses activity in the region associated to mechanical reasoning, according to researchers from Case Western Reserve University and Washington University in St Louis Medical School, in the US. This means that “empathetic and analytic thinking are, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive in the brain,” says Anthony Jack, lead author of the study published in NeuroImage.
The scientists recruited 45 healthy students to perform a series of tests which involved empathy and physics, while using magnetic resonance imaging. The results showed that both brain networks (related to social tasks and mechanical reasoning) are anti-correlated. “We observed clear evidence of reciprocal suppression: social tasks deactivated regions associated with mechanical reasoning and mechanical tasks deactivated regions associated with social reasoning,” they write in the paper.
The next step will be to try to characterize more precisely these opposing cognitive domains. “You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business,” Anthony Jack said. “But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking. You’ll never get by without both networks. You don’t want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time.”
Jack, A., Dawson, A., Begany, K., Leckie, R., Barry, K., Ciccia, A., & Snyder, A. (2012). fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains NeuroImage DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.061