Observing Environmental Destruction Stimulates Neural Activation in Networks Associated with Empathic Responses

Nathaniel Geiger, Caitlin R. Bowman, Tracy L. Clouthier, Anthony J. Nelson, Reginald B. Adams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The negative impacts of environmental disruption disproportionately affect marginalized and underprivileged communities; thus, the degree to which society is complicit in allowing unchecked environmental destruction to occur has important social justice applications. Although decades of research have sought to understand factors which determine acceptance of environmental destruction, most of this research has been based on self-report surveys. In the present work, we used neuroimaging techniques to examine the neural correlates of environmental concern. To do this, we compared responses to observing suffering dogs with responses to observing suffering ecosystems. Our results extend previous findings which had shown largely overlapping neural response patterns to observing animal and human suffering. Critically, we found activation in regions previously identified as active in empathy processes in response to viewing harm to ecosystems (i.e., without any animals present in the images). We also found relative differences in response patterns between the two types of stimuli: witnessing harm to environments (vs. dog suffering) led to reduced activation in some regions, but similar activation in others. We discuss these findings in terms of their potential implications for behavioral interventions and possibilities for continued neuroimaging research examining neural responses to environmental ecosystems and other nonhuman entities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)300-322
Number of pages23
JournalSocial Justice Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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