The Right Temporo-Parietal Junction

Michelle took me to a lecture on cognitive development and there was a fascinating discussion by JoAnn Deak, a neuro-scientist.

Recent developments in brain scanning technology have led to a new and better understanding of this small area of the brain called the right temporo-parietal junction that is believed to be responsible for thinking about what other people are thinking. In other words, it is the area of the brain most connected to empathy.

It works like this: between the ages of 10 and 20 this area of the brain is mostly undifferentiated neurons. If these neurons are “stretched” or utilized to make decisions about what other people are thinking, they become highly specialized. If not, they become more generalized. The key is that the rTPJ is connected to the visual cortex, so seeing the other person is key to making a decision about what that person is thinking.

Take a child. Most kids are so egocentric anyway that they have no concept of empathy. The reason is because their rTPJ neurons are not specialized yet. When a five-year-old looks at a person telling a tall tale, they have a hard time telling from their face that the story isn’t true. But as children get a little older, they start to read cues in the facial expressions of the person they are communicating with. They can start to detect sarcasm, irony, white lies, neediness, fishing for compliments, etc. The visual and auditory complexes are taking in the usual information but now it’s going through a second pass to assess, “What’s this person really thinking?”

That’s why it’s important to tell children, “Look at his face. What is he feeling?” Only by assessing what the other person is feeling does the observer get a sense of empathy for that other person. And interestingly–here’s where I got interested at least– you have to see able to interact with the person directly. You see their face, you hear their voice–that’s how you feel what they’re feeling and become empathetic.

Dr. Deaks thinks the increase in social networking has resulted is a generation of children who don’t learn this basic empathy. Mean girls who write shit on Facebook can’t see their victims’ faces and therefore don’t exercise these neurons. Texting doesn’t provide cues to the brain as to the other person’s reaction. Only in person interaction works. And frighteningly, as I mentioned, failure to exercise these neurons by age 20 results in undifferentiated and generalized neurons forever– use it or lose it.

So to over-simplify dramatically, social networking is causing teenagers to become sociopaths.

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7 Responses to The Right Temporo-Parietal Junction

  1. Sarah says:

    Hope the return to posting means you’re feeling better!

  2. NoAmbition says:

    Excellent points on the neurological research, and your over-generalized conclusion is probably not that far from the truth. I bet the same argument was made vociferously against television (it definitely is still in circulation).

    To me, the need for personal interaction in today’s increasingly solitudinous world reemphasizes the importance of having teachers (and curricula) in the schools who are educated properly on what and how to teach their students. It’s not just getting the kids to pass tests … the introduction of empathy/interaction basics is essential.

  3. annoyed reader says:

    Now this post, was money! Very interesting, thought-provoking commentary, and it wasn’t making fun of anyone. Almost. Except “FB kids.” Not a fan of “mean girls” either, and I think you might be on to something.

  4. Bobster says:

    Indeed. Fascinating. And more than somewhat scaring.

  5. Mangleface says:

    Here’s the screwed up part. People like me with highly specialized nuerons in the rTPJ region are almost addicted to atypical interactions like social networking or texting. My thing was mmorpgs. The ability to feel what others are feeling so too overwhelming and uncomfortable sometimes. And people really think your strange when your feeling what there feeling and your responses are way off what they expect cause empaths are rare.

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