When you see somebody you hate, whether it's an evil ex or a mean colleague, your brain undergoes a rather unexpected transformation. A new study published in PLoS One today reveals that hatred isn't the blind, irrational emotion it might seem. In fact, hate activates the brain regions associated with higher reason and the ability to predict what other people will do.
British neuroscientists did fMRI brain scans of subjects while they looked at pictures of people they claimed to hate. As a baseline, they also showed them pictures of people they felt neutrally about. Not surprisingly, hatred activated the regions of the brain associated with aggression and the motor regions that would translate this aggression into action. And given that love often turns into hate, it's not too surprising that hatred also activates two brain regions, the putamen and the insula, associated with passionate, romantic love.
What is surprising is the degree to which hatred is associated with logic and planning. The researchers write in their paper:
What seems not to be in doubt is that this cortical zone involves the premotor cortex, a zone that has been implicated in the preparation of motor planning and its execution. We hypothesize that the sight of a hated person mobilizes the motor system for the possibility of attack or defense. In addition, the involvement of the frontal pole consider to be critical in predicting the action of others, arguably an important feature when confronted by a hated person . . . it is more likely that in
the context of hate the hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise extract revenge.
So basically, hating somebody heightens your judgment and your ability to assess what other people are likely to do next. The researchers note that in this way hatred is neurologically unlike love, which tends to deactivate judgment.
Semir Zeki, one of the authors, suggested that they are on the path to developing tools that might allow researchers to figure out how much somebody hates another person just by doing a brain scan. Somehow, he imagines this might be used in court:
Interestingly, the activity in some of these structures in response to viewing a hated face is proportional in strength to the declared intensity of hate, thus allowing the subjective state of hate to be objectively quantified. This finding may have legal implications in criminal cases, for example.
Given that hate crimes lead to tougher sentences many states, Zeki might well be right. If a court can prove that somebody committed an act of violence while under the influence of hate, that person might go to jail for a much longer time than they would otherwise.