A new study conducted by University of Chicago researchers suggests that children between the ages of seven and 12 are naturally inclined to feel empathy for those in pain. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study responses in children, the researchers have observed that just like adults, children show responses to pain in the same areas of their brains.
They also found additional aspects of the brain activated in children, when youngsters saw another person intentionally hurt by another individual.
"This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else," said Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, who reported the findings in an article published in the journal Neuropsychologia.
According to Decety, the programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing.
He believes that understanding the brain's role in responding to pain may enable scientists to discern how brain impairments influence anti-social behaviour, such as bullying.
During the study, the researchers showed 17 typically developed children, ages seven to 12, animated photos of people experiencing pain, either received accidentally or inflicted intentionally.
While undergoing fMRI scans, children where shown animations using three photographs of two people whose right hands or right feet only were visible.
The subjects were also shown images without pain, and animations in which people helped someone alleviate pain.
Analysing the scans, the researcher found that the parts of the brain activated when adults see pain were also triggered in children.
"Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people in pain in children was associated with increased hemodymamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of first-hand experience of pain, including the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray and supplementary motor area," Decety wrote in the study report.
However, when the children saw animations of someone intentionally hurt, the regions of the brain engaged in social interaction and moral reasoning were also activated.
Decety says that his study provides new insights into children's perceptions of right and wrong and how their brains process information.
"Although our study did not tap into explicit moral judgment, perceiving an individual intentionally harming another person is likely to elicit the awareness of moral wrongdoing in the observer," he wrote.
Subsequent interviews with the children showed they were aware of wrongdoings in the animations in which someone was hurt.
"Thirteen of the children thought that the situations were unfair, and they asked about the reason that could explain this behaviour," Decety said.