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Gazzola Groep

Mechanisms of Social Behaviour

Over de Gazzola Groep

When we see a little girl falling from her bike, why do most of us instinctively run to help and comfort her?

We have a natural tendency to empathize and help others. In the given example, when we see a girl hurt herself on a bike, we feel her pain and want to comfort her. However, sometimes we choose not to help, because it would be too costly for us. For instance, if we are running late for an important job interview, we might leave the girl to her parents.

Years of research have revealed that one of the reasons why we help other people in pain is because their suffering activates brain regions that are also active when we ourselves are hurt. In the case of the girl falling off the bike, her pain becomes our pain and helping her becomes a way to soothe what is now our pain. A similar “emotional contagion” happens for other emotions as well: we celebrate with our friend when we watch them cross the finish line of their first marathon.

However, we do not choose to help in every circumstance. This decision cannot always be easily made, instead we may weigh the pros and cons of the actions we could take. In the example of the girl and the bike, we might weigh the benefits of helping the girl against making it to our important job interview on time.

Dr. Valeria Gazzola’s lab seeks to investigate how the brain enables us to act prosocially. We are exploring questions such as: What brain regions are involved in caring about others? How does the brain weigh our own and others’ interests? How do we learn from the consequences of our actions on others? Why do some people lack moral sentiments? How does sharing others’ pain help us learn moral values?

In order to answer these questions, we use various neuroscience tools, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), to investigate how the brain perceives, feels, and reacts to the actions and emotions of others.

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