If The Neuroscience of the Seven Deadly Sins is not a title we see on the bookstore shelves in the next year I'll eat my hat. Today's Science Times has a piece by Natalie Angier looking at what the brain might be doing when you are doing envy or schadenfreude. Both feelings, the researchers point out, are felt only in light of a third person. A Japanese lab used fMRI to measure blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) activation of the brain while participants read social narratives, imagining themselves as the protagonist, in relation to a "target character." When the target's possessions were superior, subjects reported feeling envy and the BOLD level of their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) increased proportionately to that envy. In a second study in which misfortunes were visited upon the target, subjects reported pleasure in their pain (schadenfreude) and the ventral striatum (VS)was similarly activated by that experience. Most interestingly, the amount of ACC activation in the first study correlated with the amount of VS activation in the second, implying that the more envious of the character you were in the first study, the more you enjoyed his downfall in the second.
This article reports the ACC to be associated with physical pain sensation, although I am more familiar with it at the neural correlate of conflict monitoring and error detection in relation to sensations of reward or loss. The article discusses shame as the flip-side of envy, i.e., it is a socially unacceptable feeling, hence its status as a 'sin.' That made me wonder, are the researchers really measuring envy, or if they are measuring shame? The subjects are being compelled to not simply have their feelings but to report them to others. If envy activates brain regions that contribute to error and pain processing, maybe we are seeing the response to shame, I would like to see a study in which the effect of shame is controlled for. I am also interested in how envy differs from greed. Aren't they both covetous desire of reward, except that envy includes the object from whom the reward is to be gained? These researchers do make a point of saying they are specifically studying emotion in the context of a third party but, nonetheless, a comparison of the two would be interesting. Finally, I would like to commend Natalie Angier not just for weaving a interesting and readable story tying neuroscience to new shoes and the economy, but also owns up to the exploratory nature of this research and the criticisms many in the field have of the way fMRI scans are used as instant and complete pictures of brain activation.