How feeling bad changes the brain

Source: BBC News

By Melissa Hogenboom

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, the many wrongs that befall Offred strike a chilling chord among most readers. When she is struck with a cattle prod we can almost feel her pain, and recoil at the terrible injustice of her imprisonment.

It is so unsettling because we know that each scenario in this fictional work was influenced by an element of history. “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real,” Atwood wrote of her work in the New York Times.

We are therefore easily able to put ourselves in Offred’s shoes and feel empathy towards her. It taps into our very human capacity to share the feelings others feel. In fact, when we see someone else hurt, the brain areas linked to our own pain also become active.

But it turns out that our emotional state has an effect on how much empathy we feel. Our emotions literally change the way our brain responds to others, even when they are in pain. In particular, it is when we feel bad that it can have a consequence on our social world.

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