Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Jewish Brain

In a recent NY Times piece, David Brooks wrote about the incredibly fascinating new field of Social Cognitive Neuroscience. It’s trying to understand how biology both affects and is affected by behavior (or, to put it somewhat pithily, how “the outside” interacts with “my inside”). Some of the studies involved hooking subjects up to brain scanners, and seeing what’s happening under different situations, but looking at the data through some social lenses. So, for example, what happens in the brains of Red Sox fans vs. Yankees fans when they watch baseball? How do different nationalities react to violence, at the neural level? It’s a cool article, and it sounds like some interesting science.

Here’s the one line, really offered in passing, which got my attention:

Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own.

Notice, it doesn’t say that Jews were equally sensitive to the pain of others, but that they were more sensitive. I’m shocked by that, because, for better or for worse, Judaism encourages taking care of our own family (literally and figuratively) before taking care of others. Not to ignore others, but to set up concentric rings of responsibility – my own immediate family, my extended family, my friends, my community, Jews, the world.

But, according to this insight, we actually, on some level, care more for those further from us than those closer to us, at least in some instances. I don’t know exactly what to make of that. Does that speak well of us, that we are so universally caring? Does it speak to the breakdown of those circles of responsibility – is this a modern phenomenon that’s the result of an disaffection among Jews? I’m not really sure.

Anyone have any theories?

1 comment:

Wendy Withers said...

I've been thinking about this a lot since I read the same article a few days ago. I think the Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam and being "strangers in a strange land" are large contributors to the findings.

It is normal for people to set up different levels of caring, starting with the family. However, it isn't as standard for a religion to focus on constantly perfecting the world or remembering their own exile when they see a stranger.

Actually, Tzedakah has a lot to do with it, too. I have never seen a universal ritual for charity in another religion. And, while much of that money goes towards Jewish institutions, I'm sure a good amount also goes towards all sorts of social, research, and cultural organizations that help the wider world more than they help the Jewish community.

I think the results have a lot to do with context. Because of the Jewish concepts I mentioned earlier, Jewish people can imagine the situations of others, and because they have so much comfort in family, community, and study, they probably see members of different ethnic groups as more vulnerable and therefore see them as being in more pain.