Your gain, my pain? New research from Japan shows that the human brain treats feelings of envy like physical pain, while schadenfreude -- the pleasure derived from another person's misfortune -- triggers the brain's reward circuits. The findings, published in the February 13 online edition of Science magazine, suggest our brains may be wired to treat abstract feelings much more like concrete physical experiences than was previously thought.
Led by Hidehiko Takahashi of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS), the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of 19 male and female university students while they read two stories about other fictional students.
The first story described the success of three characters: (A) a superior "rival" student of the same gender in the same field of study, (B) a superior student of the opposite gender in a different field of study, and (C) an average student of the opposite gender in a different field of study. The subjects were then asked to rate their own level of envy toward the characters on a scale of 1 to 6. Character A garnered the most envy and triggered a high level of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a key role in processing pain. The results indicate that the brain uses the same circuitry to process both social pain (envy) and physical pain.
The subjects then read a second story in which characters A and C suffer a series of misfortunes, including food poisoning and financial trouble. The fMRI data showed that the depiction of character A's hardships induced greater activity in the ventral striatum, the "reward reaction" area of the brain that normally lights up when receiving social and financial reward.
In addition, the researchers were able to predict which subjects would experience stronger schadenfreude (ventral striatum activity) when reading story 2, based on the degree of envy (anterior cingulate cortex activity) they experienced when reading story 1, suggesting a strong relationship between the way the brain processes the two feelings.
"We now have a better understanding of the mechanism at work when people take pleasure in another's misfortune," says Takahashi of the research. "Perhaps our findings can be put to use in the field of psychological counseling."