Observing Environmental Destruction Stimulates Neural Activation in Networks Associated with Empathic Responses

Abstract

The negative impacts of environmental disruption disproportionately affect marginalized and underprivileged communities; thus, the degree to which society is complicit in allowing unchecked environmental destruction to occur has important social justice applications. Although decades of research have sought to understand factors which determine acceptance of environmental destruction, most of this research has been based on self-report surveys. In the present work, we used neuroimaging techniques to examine the neural correlates of environmental concern. To do this, we compared responses to observing suffering dogs with responses to observing suffering ecosystems. Our results extend previous findings which had shown largely overlapping neural response patterns to observing animal and human suffering. Critically, we found activation in regions previously identified as active in empathy processes in response to viewing harm to ecosystems (i.e., without any animals present in the images). We also found relative differences in response patterns between the two types of stimuli: witnessing harm to environments (vs. dog suffering) led to reduced activation in some regions, but similar activation in others. We discuss these findings in terms of their potential implications for behavioral interventions and possibilities for continued neuroimaging research examining neural responses to environmental ecosystems and other nonhuman entities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Crucial to this definition of empathy is these processes facilitate, but do not require, accuracy in identifying others’ mental states. It is beyond the scope of this paper to make claims as to whether animals or inanimate objects have experience, yet, our proposed definition of empathy suggests that empathy can occur simply as a result of perceiving that these animals or objects have experience. As we describe below, such perceptions may be fairly common in everyday life.

  2. 2.

    We avoided using words specifically associated with empathic responses such as suffering or harm.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Social, Life, and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center and by Social Science Research Institute funds, Penn State University, to R.B.A. Jr.

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Correspondence to Nathaniel Geiger or Reginald B. Adams Jr..

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This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments.

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Geiger, N., Bowman, C.R., Clouthier, T.L. et al. Observing Environmental Destruction Stimulates Neural Activation in Networks Associated with Empathic Responses. Soc Just Res 30, 300–322 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-017-0298-x

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Keywords

  • Conservation
  • Environmental concern
  • Neuroimaging
  • Empathy