Empathy vs Analysis - you can't do both at the same time

Human beings have two systems in their brains -- an empathetic social system that allows us to simulate other people's experiences, and an analytical system that allows them to solve logical problems. 

In an experiment at Case Western Reserve, it turns out you can't run both systems at the same time. (Story via Luke Bearden via Lookmark) After watching test subjects alternate between empathetic and analytical problems in an fMRI, they noticed that one would turn off when the other turned on.

The MRI images showed that social problems deactivated brain regions associated with analysis, and activated the social network. This finding held true whether the questions came via video or print. Meanwhile, the physics questions deactivated the brain regions associated with empathizing and activated the analytical network.

"When subjects are lying in a scanner with nothing to do, which we call the resting state, they naturally cycle between the two networks," Jack said. "This tells us that it's the structure of the adult brain that is driving this, that it's a physiological constraint on cognition."


"You want the CEO of a company to be highly analytical in order to run a company efficiently, otherwise it will go out of business," he said. "But, you can lose your moral compass if you get stuck in an analytic way of thinking."

The researchers speculate that this separation between two networks within the brain account for the gap between facts that we know scientifically and facts that we know experientially. 

It seems astonishing to what extent our conscious lives are defined by the physical limitations and parameters of our brains. Surely if you're building software, it is the ultimate in swapping between analytic (making / coding) and empathetic (something people want).

Further, maybe this mechanism of switching between analytic and empathetic/experiential explains why there are diminishing returns past 50 hours of work per week. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy indeed.