Thursday, March 17, 2011

This is your brain on natural disasters – why we react the way we do to catastrophes

In light of the recent natural disasters in JapanHaitiChina, and the Philippines to name a few from the last couple of years – why are humans more likely to flock towards headlines such as these, even as their stories unfold thousands of miles away?

Dr. Susan Whitbourne, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains this psychology phenomenon in a recent article from Psychology Today. The concept is more complex than what might be seen at the surface. She explains that humans are more likely to express empathy when viewing disaster, even if it is not directly happening to them.

Whitbourne refers to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Dr. Spreng and Dr. Mar of the study refer to autobiographical memory – our brains trigger the same chemicals that are released when we ourselves see others harmed. So when viewers turn their televisions on to images such as this one, this one, or this one - our brains essentially try to depict what the actual victims are thinking and feeling.

So why are we not automatically inclined to help with a disaster that might still need assistance weeks, months, or even years later? Dr. Whitbourne refers to the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome, which is defined as another social psychological peculiarity – in the presence of a distressed victim, witnesses do nothing no matter how debiliated that victim is. Research states that the higher number of witnesses there are to a tragic event, the less likely they are to help.

Some of the latest research on the bystander effect is also applicable to tragic catastrophes that are not as newsy as others that says we can be peculiarly insensitive to the plight of others. Neuroscientists claim that our brains can still bring back that empathy. Regardless of this fact, Whitbourne recomends the best solution is to help sooner rather than later in order to avoid falling prey to the bystander effect.

It will be interesting to see how much relief efforts are in fact coming in to Japan and other countries that were recently ravaged by Mother Nature in the years to come.

You can read the full article here.

- Theresa Campagna

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