Slavery Worldwide and the Neuroscience of Empathy

By: Jeff Owens

According to Free the Slaves, a non-governmental organization committed to supporting sustainable solutions to slavery worldwide, there are 21-30 million people in slavery today. Though slavery is illegal in every country, it is more prominent today than ever before.

When informing others about modern slavery, it is important to understand the mechanics of human empathy. How effective is it to inspire empathy when one shares a book or a video? Even if a friend reads about the plight of a modern slave, does that friend grasp the reality of modern slavery in full?

Christopher Bergland wrote an article in Psychology Today regarding a perception experiment conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences. In the experiment, participants were paired with an anonymous partner and asked to compare their respective experiences. One participant experienced pleasant sensations, like touching velvet while viewing images of rabbits; their partner experienced unpleasant sensations, like touching slimy textures and viewing images of slugs. The results indicated that those experiencing pleasant sensations perceived their partner’s negative experiences as less severe. Bergland summarizes the research findings in the following way, “Until now, social neuroscience models have assumed that people simply rely on their own emotions as a reference for empathy. This only works, however, if we are in a neutral state or the same state as our counterpart” (Bergland). Humans naturally compare their peers’ experiences to their own—one might try to empathize with the fact that their friend has a sprained ankle, but they can really only compare their friend’s pain with pain they’ve felt in the past.

Perhaps this study could explain how it is such a simple matter to distance oneself from the persistence of modern slavery—how so many people could view images of slaves in textile factories and mines and not feel the immediacy of their struggle (Walters). Could a life in the lap of luxury numb someone to the truth about modern slavery, even if it is a problem that pervades the U.K. and the U.S. (Maddox)?

Thankfully, the same neurological study also mentions how it is possible to become more empathetic—how “our brain’s neural circuitry is malleable and can be rewired through neuroplasticity” (Bergland). Humans can literally change the way they think if they are persistent enough. One way to achieve this growth is detailed in a Huffington Post article by Tia Ghose. Dr. Jorge Moll Neto, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Instituto D’Or de Pesquisa e Ensino in Brazil, asked twenty-five participants to lay in an MRI scanner and conjure up strong emotions about their loved ones. The next day, he asked them to focus on feelings of empathy. A computer algorithm compared the baseline brain activity when participants were thinking about loved ones with their brain activity the second day, when they were asked to conjure up feelings of empathy. After four 15-minute training sessions in a single day, study volunteers showed more activity in the brain regions responsible for empathy compared to those who did not get the guided feedback on their brain state. The new technique could be used in situations where people are lacking feelings of empathy (Ghose).

Knowing this, perhaps one can acquire a more accurate perspective regarding the plight of slaves if one participates in the eradication of such exploitation. Focusing on the struggle of others on a consistent basis could help us better realize the immediacy of their situations. Organizations like Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, and the Polaris Project provide opportunities to combat modern slavery at a local, national, and international level. If someone engages in acts of empathetic behavior, would those acts not become habitual?

The 2014 issue of Digital Literature Review seeks to educate people of all backgrounds by publishing literature regarding the perpetuation of modern slavery. To take part in the battle against oppression, please participate in the DLR’s call for papers.

Works Cited

“About Us – Free the Slaves.” Free the Slaves. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Bergland, Christopher. “The Neuroscience of Empathy.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Ghose, Tia. “Can You Be Trained To Feel More Empathy?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 27 May 2014. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

Maddox, Tony. “Modern-day Slavery: A Problem That Can’t Be Ignored.” The CNN Freedom Project Ending ModernDay Slavery RSS. N.p., 04 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Walters, Helen. “Powerful Photos of Modern Slavery — and Human Survival.” Ideasted.com. N.p., 26 June 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

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One comment on “Slavery Worldwide and the Neuroscience of Empathy

  1. chrisadrien says:

    Interesting read – western people who have all the modcons and live a comfortable life will be less likely to help is what I got from this. What other studies are there like the one from Max Planck?

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