Schadenfreude, an originally German term, is used to describe a very human emotion — translated by a certain hit Broadway musical as “happiness at the misfortune of others.”. Now, a team of neuroscientists, who were actually studying neurons associated with observational learning, has found the particular brain cells that activate when they see someone else fail — which may show the physical manifestation of this complex emotion.
The phenomenon of observational learning — taking lessons from others’ experiences so we don’t have to undergo them — is central to human cognition. The behaviour of “schadenfreude neurons” adds an interesting extra dimension to this action.
“For the study, ten epileptic patients who had electrodes implanted deep in their brains — standard procedure for epileptic studies — were asked to play a card game in which they would draw a card from one of two decks. The odds were stacked against them in one deck, so that they only had a 30 percent chance of winning. The other deck was rigged in their favor […]
The researchers noticed a change in the firing of brain cells deep in the frontal lobe—specifically in a brain area associated with decision-making, emotion, and social interactions—that corresponded to whether the players thought their opponents would win or lose. Furthermore, the cells responded differently after players learned whether their prediction was correct or not. […]
The most surprising observation was that those cells also showed increased firing activity whenever a player won, or his or her opponents lost, and decreased activity when a player lost and the opponents won. That’s the basic definition of schadenfreude: we experience pleasure when we win, but also when others lose.”
Proving the connection between neuronal activity and human feeling has proven notoriously difficult for scientists, so this study is a step in an exciting direction, even if it emphasizes a sometimes-nasty impulse. But we’re complicated: “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” between good and bad in us, and the next time someone you know thinks “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English?” or why “It Sucks To Be Me,” or how much they miss “My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada,” and you feel good about it, imagine the wonders your neurons are busy performing! “For Now” at least.