Researchers from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California have conducted a clever experiment to see how people develop an emotional response to stories told. Turns out that it takes time for our emotions to fully mature, meaning, as they say, that one should give time to let things sink in. The researchers believe that our modern dependence on online tools, that attempt to quickly present us with a lot of information, are prone to influencing our ability to make moral decisions. Vulcan neuroscientists issued a statement welcoming the new findings.
The study’s authors used compelling, real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain, in 13 volunteers (the emotion felt was verified through a careful protocol of pre- and post-imaging interviews).
Brain imaging showed that the volunteers needed six to eight seconds to fully respond to stories of virtue or social pain.
However, once awakened, the responses lasted far longer than the volunteers’ reactions to stories focused on physical pain.
The study raises questions about the emotional cost—particularly for the developing brain—of heavy reliance on a rapid stream of news snippets obtained through television, online feeds or social networks such as Twitter.
"If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality," Immordino- Yang said.
As a former public junior high school teacher who pioneered a doctoral thesis track on learning and the brain at Harvard University, and who holds a joint appointment in the Rossier School of Education along with her assistant professorship in the institute (part of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences), Immordino-Yang stressed the study’s relevance to teaching.
"Educators are charged with the role of producing moral citizens who can think in ethical ways, who feel responsible to help others less fortunate, who can use their knowledge to make the world a better place," she said.
"And so we need to understand how social experience shapes interactions between the body and mind, to produce citizens with a strong moral compass."
Clearly, normal life events will always provide opportunities for humans to feel admiration and compassion.
But fast-paced digital media tools may direct some heavy users away from traditional avenues for learning about humanity, such as engagement with literature or face-to-face social interactions.
Immordino-Yang did not blame digital media. "It’s not about what tools you have, it’s about how you use those tools," she said.
Castells said he was less concerned about online social spaces, some of which can provide opportunities for reflection, than about "fast-moving television or virtual games."
University of Southern California press release: Nobler Instincts Take Time …