Biology of Hatred and Empathy

Emile Bruneau’s mother was schizophrenic. This led to a career in neuroscience. With a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Michigan in neuroscience, he initially hoped to study his mother’s condition, but his interests changed.

What fascinated him was why good people could become warped by hatred. When traveling in South Africa, he got lost on a biking trip. He was cared for by an elderly woman when he emerged from the forest in bad condition. She asked for nothing in return. Then she started spouting racist nonsense. She acted like she had two minds like his schizophrenic mother.

Emile spent time in places that were torn by intractable violence. He began to wonder if empathy could be developed amongst people who seemed to hate each other. From his work in neuroscience, he knew that brain cells were dynamic. He started looking for ways to impact the sources of hatred in our brains and replace them with empathy.

What he found was that contact between those in conflict could help but contact needed to be carefully designed. He was seeking a science of contact that helps us understand what type of contact works best and in what situations.

Emile also developed several insights on hatred and dehumanization:

  • Hatred can bury empathy in a person but cannot bury it. There are ways to reestablish empathy.
  • One-on-one empathy toward one person can lead to more tolerant views of all persons like them.
  • Contact with others works best when it changes how we view ourselves.
  • Hatred declines when we imagine our future selves and put aside resentments from the past.

Emile was not able to fulfill his goal of understanding how empathy could replace hatred in our brains. He died at age 47 of an aggressive form of brain cancer. As he was dying, he continued to strive for an understanding of hatred and how it could be transformed into empathy.

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            “The world has grown darker in the weeks since Emile died. Democracy itself feels as if it’s hanging by a thread, the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of abating, intolerance and anxiety are everywhere. The whole country seems to be poised on a knife-edge between the same warring impulses that Emile spent his life studying.”

            “But at some point soon, the future will arrive and we’ll have to figure out how to live in it, together. We’ll need some earnestness then, and we’ll need the lesson Emile tried so hard to learn and to teach.” – Jeneen Interlandi (member of the New York Times Editorial Board)

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