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Beyond anthropocentric empathy: ERP dynamics of empathy for non-human beings and ecosystems

José Raúl Naranjo, Dr. Verónica Sevillano* , Dr. Juan I. Aragonés**, Dr. Shihui Han***

* Department of Social Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, National University of Distance Education, Madrid, Spain

** Department of Social Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, Complutense University of Madrid, Spain

*** Cultural and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Peking University, Beijing, China

Human beings are intrinsically bonded to the natural world. Moreover, as living systems, we are deeply tuned to large-scale ecological processes in which we are embedded. Nevertheless, humans in modern industrial societies are usually heading away from the natural world, while transforming the natural landscapes to build all sorts of artefacts to make our lives easier and comfortable. Regretfully, this lifestyle has been accompanied by deforestation, stratospheric ozone depletion, loss of biodiversity and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Therefore, strategies to promote ecocentric attitudes are at the core of internationally concerted efforts and scientific inquiry. Several works including ours (Sevillano, 2007a; Sevillano et al., 2007b) suggests that inducing empathy may be a potent technique for creating more responsible ecocentric attitudes and motivate us to protect other forms of life, including non-human beings. The evidences so far indicate that empathy towards nonhuman beings is a reliable human attribute and that empathy is stronger towards phylogenetically closer animals. However, it is still not clear which are the neural mechanisms underlying empathy towards non-human beings.

In this proposed joint project involving four different universities, we aim to investigate for the first time the cognitive and neural processes of ecocentric empathy. This will be done by a multimethod approach to the empathic response of proenvironmental activists to visual stimulus showing humans, animals, plants and ecosystem in distressing situations. Our approach will include EEG and advanced source analysis methods, physiological measures of emotional response and subjective empathy ratings. The data from the pro-environmental activists will be compared to the results obtained from a non pro-environmental group.

We believe that this cognitive neuroscience approach to human empathy towards nonhuman beings may certainly advance our understanding of the neural mechanisms of ecocentric empathy and devise strategies to effectively cultivate this basic human ability.