How neuroscience shows the highs and lows of humanity

Here's what neuroscience and psychology have to say about how people humanize and dehumanize one another.

ADAM WAYTZ: What I like about studying humanization and dehumanization is that we now have a variety of methods at our disposal. And neuroscience is often not the perfect method to study a lot of things, but it offers a great insight to humanization and dehumanization because we now know that there is a prescribed set of regions that tends to come online, or be preferentially active, when people are thinking about people -- thinking about people versus objects, playing a game with a person versus a machine, thinking about others' mental states -- their thoughts, their preferences, their desires, rather than thinking about physical aspects of themselves. And we know that these brain regions are responsive to a lot of different stimuli, but they also seem preferentially active toward human beings, or cues to human beings. So that signal of these brain regions that we could call the mentalizing network, or some people call it the social brain network, operates as a nice measure of: How much are you deeply engaging with another person as fully human, or are you engaging with another person's mind? And what the studies have shown is that not all groups are perceived to be equally human.

So to the extent that you are less engaged with another person as a human being -- so this could be viewing, in the fMRI scanner, someone who is homeless, or someone who you believe is addicted to drugs, oftentimes the signal in these brain regions is lower. Or at times, if you're viewing an outgroup member, someone of a different ethnicity or a different geopolitical background from you, oftentimes you get reduction in these brain regions as well. And so the neuroscience offers us a way to nicely gauge the extent to which we're really perceiving another person as fully human, or whether we're turning our humanization down a notch and seeing them as somewhat less than human.

One of the reasons that humans seem to be psychologically important comes from the mere power of human touch. So there are several studies that suggests that human touch has an almost, say, magical power. So there are studies showing that people experiencing pain, if they hold the hand of a loved one, they actually experienced the sting of that pain less aversively. There are studies showing that NBA teams that touch each other more on the court -- more back slapping, more handshaking -- perform more cooperatively on the court and perform better. Something about touch signals cooperative intent. And then there are studies showing that people value objects and goods that are handmade more than objects and goods that they believe are machine-made. And the reason why they value handmade goods to a greater extent, even when it's the exact same good, whether it's a scarf or a coffee mug, if you tell people it's handmade, they believe that the good was somehow made with love. So human touch signals cooperation. It signals care. And it also signals authenticity. And so human touch can give a lot of meaning to mundane experiences and objects as well.

  • When humans think about other humans versus inanimate objects, that difference can be seen in activated brain regions on fMRI scans.
  • Studies reveal that those brain regions don't light up equally when we look at all people – we tend to humanize some people and dehumanize others when we see things like homelessness, drug addiction, different ethnicities or someone in an outgroup.
  • On the other hand, humanization can be increased by something seemingly trivial: human touch. Studies show that NBA teams who touch more on the court play better together, and that the touch of a loved one can reduce pain.

Dehumanization has been trending for decades. Here’s how.

There is greater social distance between Americans than ever before.

Videos
  • There has been a trend toward dehumanization the past four or five decades. This dehumanization has made it easier for us to see others more as commodities than as co-citizens.
  • This dehumanization manifests in four different pillars: political polarization, income inequality, automation, and marketization.
  • Whether through political splits, or income differences, there is more social distance between us than ever before. This distance makes it easier for us, out of ignorance, to treat others in ways that are inhumane.
Keep reading Show less

People who constantly complain are harmful to your health

Moans, groans, and gripes release stress hormones in the brain.

Photo credit: Getty Images / Stringer
Mind & Brain

Could you give up complaining for a whole month? That's the crux of this interesting piece by Jessica Hullinger over at Fast Company. Hullinger explores the reasons why humans are so predisposed to griping and why, despite these predispositions, we should all try to complain less. As for no complaining for a month, that was the goal for people enrolled in the Complaint Restraint project.

Participants sought to go the entirety of February without so much as a moan, groan, or bellyache.

Keep reading Show less

Italy to require schools to teach climate change, in world first

Should other nations start requiring schools to teach climate science, too?


Barbara Alper
/ Getty
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Starting September 2020, public schools in Italy will have to incorporate 33 hours of climate-related lessons into their annual curriculum.
  • Italy's education minister said it's part of an effort to place "the environment and society at the core of everything we learn in school."
  • In the U.S., not all states have implemented teaching standards that call for lessons on climate science, but about 80 percent of parents said they support such standards.
Keep reading Show less