[Paleopsych] NYT: This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude

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Sat Jan 28 20:11:18 UTC 2006

This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude

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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

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

I wouldn't exactly call that schadenfreude, although Nature made it
the core of its press release and most news coverage emphasized the
big German word. Dr. Singer didn't actually put the word in her paper,
either, but in an interview she defended the idea that the emotion she
was viewing came under the heading of schadenfreude. She did
acknowledge that the word included other feelings.

When someone slips and falls on the ice, celebrities have wardrobe
malfunctions and rich people lose money, your reward center may light
up. Sometimes envy inspires schadenfreude. Sometimes it's just a good
camera angle. Another example, not mentioned in the Nature press
release, might be when a competitor, say the journal Science,
publishes papers by Dr. Hwang Woo Suk that turn out to be fabricated
and you (Nature) publish a paper by the same author about an
improbably cloned Afghan hound that has held up to scrutiny so far.

There is a small flaw in my wish to see what part of the brain lights
up when Maria sings "I Feel Pretty" in "West Side Story." With brain
scans, a lot depends on context. What Dr. Singer and colleagues saw
was a reward center lighting up and the empathy circuits dimming. She
said the same reward center might also be active in anticipation of
chocolate, for instance, and in drug addiction.

Still, even if we need to bring in context, there is a great big world
of emotions and mental activity out there to be scanned. There's
amusement, bemusement and disillusionment. One could be dazed, or
confused, or dazed and confused. Would those be different?

Not to mention the blues. There are the morning blues, the poor man's
blues, the white boy blues, the Chicken Cordon Blues and the "blues
you get from trying to keep your Uncle Bill from dying and he
afterward forgets you in his will." Are they all the same?

These questions may not be answered in my lifetime, but I hope for the
resolution of one question that has always plagued me, the difference
between ennui and boredom.

Suppose one performed brain scans of adolescents refusing to do their
homework, prisoners serving life sentences and graduate students
suffering from ennui. Based on the self-assessments of adolescents I
know, I predict that the prisoners and the adolescents will show
similar brain activity - anger toward the warden turned inward.

I don't know where that happens in the brain, but I'm betting the
graduate students are just going through periods of involuntary
celibacy and trying not to be obvious about their desperation.

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