Big Ideas: Mind Matters

Case Western Reserve University's Anthony Jack works at the intersection of psychology and philosophy. By studying the inner workings of the brain with MRI scans, he hopes to bridge the gulf that separates analytical thinking and empathetic behavior.

Sometimes, before the students are slid into the tube for a brain scan, they ask Anthony Jack or his assistants an anxious question.

"People have this idea, 'Oh, you're going to see inside the soul!' Well, maybe at some point in the future!" Jack says, laughing at his own joke.

For now, he reassures the students: No, a brain scanner can't read your thoughts. Yet Jack, the lead investigator in Case Western Reserve University's Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab, does use a functional MRI machine to watch brains work. And after seeing different regions of the students' brains light up as they tackle different types of problems, Jack has come to a provocative conclusion at the crossroads of psychology and philosophy. People, he says, can't empathize and analyze at the same time.

Consider an expert doctor whose lack of bedside manner alienates his patients, or a professor whose caustic fault-finding leaves her students discouraged. Both could use help switching from analyzing how something works to reading and responding to people's social cues. With help from business and medical professors at CWRU, Jack is seeking ways to bridge that mental gap.

"Virtually all our education is aimed at the analytic network," Jack says. "How do we train the other one?"

The son of an American philosopher and a neuroscience researcher from New Zealand, Jack was born in England and graduated from Oxford University in 1994. He got his doctorate in London just as the city became one of the first major centers for brain imaging. The excitement of the breakthrough allured him. He trained at a London brain-imaging lab, then did post-doctoral work in neurology at Washington University in St. Louis. There, his colleagues published results suggesting that the brain's analytic and social systems operated in constant tension with each other — an idea greeted with skepticism by scientists he knew in London.

So once Jack arrived at CWRU in 2007, he decided to interpret his St. Louis colleagues' results while building on his own philosophical theories about consciousness. "I had this idea that I didn't really think would be true," Jack says. "The philosophical stuff I'd been doing suggested that there was this split between two really fundamental ways of understanding." Would the philosophy and the brain science line up?

Jack and his colleagues recruited CWRU students willing to have their brains scanned for $25 an hour. They were screened for claustrophobia. The students had to be willing to spend up to two hours lying inside an MRI machine, wearing a cagelike device around their heads and listening to audio through earphones, with noise-canceling headphones over them to mask the MRI's high-pitched warble.

The students watched videos on a computer screen reflected in a mirror and took multiple-choice tests using keys at their fingertips. Instructional clips from the Video Encyclopedia of Physics Demonstrations (for instance, a professor explains the Doppler effect) alternated randomly with acted skits that showed one person misunderstanding another's mental state (a male student badgers a female student to let him see her homework). The MRI's magnets tracked blood flow through the brain, which appeared on screen as colors flashing and swelling in the lobes.

What Jack saw confirmed the findings of his former colleagues in St. Louis.

"There are two sets of brain areas, and they correspond absolutely perfectly to the prior work," he says. One system lit up as the students concentrated on the physics problems. As they read the actors' emotions, a different system flashed into action.

That wasn't the news; for years, scientists have been using brain imaging to see which parts of the brain do which types of thinking. The news was that when one system took on hard work, the other system dropped below its regular level of activity and practically shut down.

"There's an immediate hard suppression of these regions, almost like, 'Well, I'm engaging in empathy now, so just get rid of the analytic,' " says Jack, "and the same thing the other way around."

Now, Jack is exploring his findings' implications for how we can improve our own thinking and help others do the same. He's in the right place for that, he says. Not only was CWRU the third university in the United States to start a cognitive science department, it encourages faculty to reach across academic disciplines.

So he's joined a brain health committee at CWRU's medical school. It's looking at how to integrate empathetic thinking into approaches to health care at University Hospitals.

"Doctors are trained to think of people as complex biological machines," Jack says. But that isn't as helpful with the lifestyle-caused diseases common in America today. "The main way to solve them is to motivate people to change their behavior. The last thing that motivates someone is someone with a cold and detached attitude."

He's also teamed up with Richard Boyatzis, a professor at CWRU's Weatherhead School of Management, to work on a longtime research topic at the business school, professional and academic coaching.

Jack and Boyatzis had students talk with two academic coaches, one who helped the students envision a positive future for themselves and another who corrected flaws. Later, inside the MRI machine, the students watched the same two coaches on video and answered multiple-choice questions they posed. The students later described the compassionate coach as inspiring — and listening to him activated areas of their brains associated with imagination and motivation.

"There's lots of elements to success, but what we tend to think many people miss is a positive, appetitelike motivation," Jack says. "You want people to feel a pull toward a positive vision of the future."

Jack is also studying whether people can train their empathetic mind through Eastern practices. In an unpublished study, he and his assistants tested students before and after an hour of yoga. They scored better afterward on facial recognition tests, which measured their ability to read others' emotions.

In the end, CWRU's Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab may be helping students look into their own souls and others' — not through a scan, but through empathy.

And if it seems like Jack is favoring half of the brain, he's really trying to correct an imbalance. Colleges already teach students to analyze, he says. "We don't look in my lab at stuff that trains the analytic system, because we don't see that as a gap in the culture."

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