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In recent weeks we have seen the extremes of hate and love in the media, with the storming of the US Capitol Building, to the love expressed in the inauguration poem.  So with Valentine’s Day upon us again, what can neuroscience tell us about the extremes of hate and love?

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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In January, the world witnessed the whipping up of sentiment that led to people storming the Capitol Building in Washington DC, fuelled by hatred that resulted in death and injury. And then a few weeks later, at the new President’s Inauguration, the US poet Laurette Amanda Gorman called for unity and togetherness in her poem that encouraged an atmosphere of love and promise for the future. It is in these times of pandemic crisis and division that we need to consider how best to strengthen our sentiments of love, so that we can become much stronger in preparation for the post-Covid world! So, what can neuroscience studies tell us about how the brain fosters hate and love, so that we can reduce one, and increase the other?

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) started in Cape Town in 1996, and in 2000 led to the development of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, famously created, and admired all over the world to foster reparation, rehabilitation and healing. South Africans proved to be world leaders in overcoming feelings of hate towards perpetrators for the greater love of society and a positive future.  One of the main reasons that led South Africans to be able to do this, was the incredible ability for empathy – or putting oneself in another person’s shoes, especially when wanting to reduce suffering and enhance positive experiences in others.  In 2017, Dr Melike Fourie – a neuroscientist at the University of Stellenbosch – published a functional brain imaging study to demonstrate what happens in the brains of Black and White South Africans who lived through apartheid, when experiencing empathy for pain in another, who might once have belonged to a ‘hated’ group. Dr Fourie found that Black and White people had greater brain activation to their own group (Black or White) when watching their social or physical pain on a computer screen.  This was particularly prevalent in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with empathy and arousal.  Moreover, the White people who experienced shame towards Black people’s pain and suffering, had an emotional blunting response in the brain.  And while this study was not demonstrating ‘love for the other’ per se, empathy responses are arguably the first step to love!

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Hatefulness, on the other hand, has a definite neural signature in the brain that is very different to love.

Famous neuroscientists Semir Zeki and Paul Romaya in 2008 used fMRI to show images of hated versus neutral people that corresponded to participants’ hate scores for these images.  The neuroscientists found increased brain activation in the medial frontal gyrus (for sense of self), right putamen, (for motivation) bilaterally in premotor cortex in the frontal pole (for motor reactions) and bilaterally in the medial insula (for feelings of anxiety).  This suggests that when we experience hatred for others, our brains are gearing up to lash out, to demonstrate that our sense of self is more important than the other person and helps to demonstrate our individual omnipotence.  Just think about how individual animals look and position themselves when trying to overpower a perceived competitor.  The rioters who stormed the Capitol in the US, or the perpetrators of apartheid were also using their brains to show their omnipotence and power to ‘destroy’ the other.  But love is more inclusive, and the neural processes support a more social outlook.

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‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind’ so said William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Feelings of love are sometimes described as being similar to the brain states of addiction, with increased activation occurring in the dopaminergic subcortical regions of the basal ganglia, linked to reward and motivation when perceiving one’s love objects.  However, new evidence by Chinese neuroscientists has demonstrated that romantic love enhances diffuse brain activity across default mode networks associated with socio-emotional processing – meaning that we appear to feel more sociable and inclusive when in love.  Being social and inclusive during the Covid pandemic lockdown might be difficult to achieve, but we can still experience the enhancement of those brain networks when engaging with our beloved pets, or when catching up with loved ones and good friends via Zoom!  

So despite the majority of the world being forced to lockdown and self-isolate during the Covid pandemic, try not to let your brains become isolationist.  But think about the brain processes of love that foster social and inclusive thinking this very different Valentine’s Day! 

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Dr Samantha Brooks is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, specialising in the neural correlates of impulse control from eating disorders to addiction. 

For more information you can contact Samantha at: drsamanthabrooks.com 

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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