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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Something to Tweet About

The constant, quick updates we get from news feeds and social networking sites like Twitter might be affecting our sense of morality, according to a new study from a group of neuroscientists at the University of Southern California.
The scientists looked at how people respond to real-life stories meant to make them feel admiration for a skill or virtue, or compassion for another person's pain and suffering. Brain scans showed that humans respond to signs of physical pain in just a few seconds, but it takes longer—about six to eight seconds—to react to others' psychological pain with emotions like compassion.
It's an important finding: It means that when we watch the news or receive streams of information online, we often don't have enough time to fully process the human suffering before we get the next story or update.
"For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection," says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who led the study. "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."
Because the emotional systems tied to our moral sense are "inherently slow, perhaps all we can say is, not so fast" when it comes to how information is delivered, says Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, who also worked on the study. “We actually separate the good from the bad in great part thanks to the feeling of admiration. It’s a deep physiological reaction that’s very important to define our humanity.”
The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online. —Heather Wax