Tuesday, January 24, 2006


The New York Times has a piece on brain scans becoming amazingly precise, where they can now identify the source of very complicated emotions, like "schadenfreude" as the Germans say.
This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude

Published: January 24, 2006

Now that schadenfreude, which I always thought meant "shades of Freud" but actually means taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune, has been located in the brain, I am awaiting news on the location of ennui, angst, misery, malaise and "feeling pretty."

I was actually hoping for anomie as well, but that was when I thought it was something like ennui. Apparently, if we are to believe the several dictionaries I consulted, anomie isn't exactly a state of mind but a kind of disconnected lack of direction or morals.

I think my expectations are reasonable. After all, brain scans - which were used in the detection of schadenfreude - have clearly reached the level of sophistication required to identify states of mind described by complicated German words. Soon they will advance to states of mind truly expressible only in French, and ultimately to the kind of internal experience until now captured only in our best musical comedies.

Tania Singer at University College London and her colleagues, who published a schadenfreude paper in Nature, were not actually searching for schadenfreude when they used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch the brains of subjects in action. Their primary interest was variation in levels of empathy, which can be detected by the activity in "pain-related areas" like the "fronto-insular and anterior cingulate cortices" of the brain when a person is watching someone else in pain.

First the experimental subjects watched people playing a game in which some cheated (bad people) and others played fair (good people). Then they watched the same people suffering from a painful stimulus.

The empathy circuits lighted up in both men and women when bad things happened to good people. When bad things happened to bad people, the women in the study were still empathic. But not the men. Not only did they show less empathy toward bad people, but the reward center in the left nucleus accumbens lighted up. All that translates as "Serves him right!"

As for identifying French emotions ... never, I mean ... jamais!