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Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, University of Southern California – The Brain and Distasteful People

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the University of Southern California explains how the brain behaves differently while observing someone we dislike.

Lisa Aziz-Zadeh is an assistant professor of occupational science at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. Her work examines embodied representations as well as creativity and language from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Her work has been published numerous journal articles and book chapter and she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

About Dr. Aziz-Zadeh

Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh – The Brain and Distasteful People

We use our own body representations to understand the actions and intentions of other people.  That is, when I see someone open a bottle of champagne, my brain actually goes through some of the same processes for opening a bottle of champagne. This helps us better understand the meaning and intent of other people’s actions.

However what remains unknown is to what extent you use your own body representations to understand people that are different from yourself.  If your body or personality is highly different from another person, do you still try to match the other person to yourself in order to understand them?  Is there an implicit revulsion in matching the bodies and actions of people that are highly dislikable onto our own body representations?

We tried to answer this question by looking at the brain activity of Jewish individuals while they watched videos of Anti-Semetic Neo-Nazis performing simple actions, like reaching for a cup.  Prior to scanning, all participants were given extensive background stories of the atrocities that the Neo-Nazi actor had committed.  By using both participants and actors who were Caucasian, we could look at the effect of likability without looking at effects of race or gender.  What we found is that, in fact, the way you activate your own body regions when viewing people you dislike is different than when you view people that you like. In particular this effect was found in the ventral premotor cortex, a part of the brain that is commonly active when you perform an action or watch someone else make the same action.  It’s a strong indication of the role emotions play on basic brain functions. Whether or not you like the person you are looking at modifies the way that you process their actions, even for something as simple as reaching for a cup.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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