The Neural Basis of Empathy

Department of Social Neuroscience, Max-Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Stephanstraße 1a, 04309 Leipzig, Germany.
Annual Review of Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 19.32). 07/2012; 35(1):1-23. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-062111-150536
Source: PubMed


Empathy--the ability to share the feelings of others--is fundamental to our emotional and social lives. Previous human imaging studies focusing on empathy for others' pain have consistently shown activations in regions also involved in the direct pain experience, particularly anterior insula and anterior and midcingulate cortex. These findings suggest that empathy is, in part, based on shared representations for firsthand and vicarious experiences of affective states. Empathic responses are not static but can be modulated by person characteristics, such as degree of alexithymia. It has also been shown that contextual appraisal, including perceived fairness or group membership of others, may modulate empathic neuronal activations. Empathy often involves coactivations in further networks associated with social cognition, depending on the specific situation and information available in the environment. Empathy-related insular and cingulate activity may reflect domain-general computations representing and predicting feeling states in self and others, likely guiding adaptive homeostatic responses and goal-directed behavior in dynamic social contexts.

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Available from: Boris Bernhardt, Jun 30, 2015
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    • "The mirror neuron system (MNS) includes the IPL, pSTS, and IFG (Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004; Iacoboni and Dapretto, 2006). The mentalizing system allows individuals to predict the relationships between external events and internal states, whereas the MNS responds to both action performance and action observation (Bernhardt and Singer, 2012). Together, these networks enable humans to participate in joint action and share the feelings of others – the prerequisites of social life. "
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    ABSTRACT: The capacity to act collectively within groups has led to the survival and thriving of Homo sapiens. A central group collaboration mechanism is "social synchrony," the coordination of behavior during joint action among affiliative members, which intensifies under threat. Here, we tested brain response to vignettes depicting social synchrony among combat veterans trained for coordinated action and following life-threatening group experience, versus controls, as modulated by oxytocin (OT), a neuropeptide supporting social synchrony. Using a randomized, double-blind, within-subject design, 40 combat-trained and control male veterans underwent magnetoencephalography (MEG) twice following OT/placebo administration while viewing two social vignettes rated as highly synchronous: pleasant male social gathering and coordinated unit during combat. Both vignettes activated a wide response across the social brain in the alpha band; the combat scene triggered stronger activations. Importantly, OT effects were modulated by prior experience. Among combat veterans, OT attenuated the increased response to combat stimuli in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)- a hub of social perception, action observation, and mentalizing - and enhanced activation in the inferior parietal lobule (IPL) to the pleasant social scene. Among controls, OT enhanced inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) response to combat cues, demonstrating selective OT effects on mirror-neuron and mentalizing networks. OT-enhanced mirror network activity was dampened in veterans reporting higher posttraumatic symptoms. Results demonstrate that the social brain responds online, via modulation of alpha rhythms, to stimuli probing social synchrony, particularly those involving threat to survival, and OT's enhancing versus anxiolytic effects are sensitive to salient experiences within social groups.
    NeuroImage 10/2015; 124. DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.09.066 · 6.36 Impact Factor
    • "For example, the salience network (with nodes in anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insulae of both hemispheres) is assumed to recruit other brain regions to process sensory stimuli, and the visual dorsal attention network (parietal cortex, frontal eye fields, visual cortices) is central in all kinds of voluntary attention (Barrett and Satpute, 2013). In addition, a separate network has been suggested for empathy, including the anterior insula and dorsal-anterior/anterior-midcingulate cortex (Bernhardt and Singer, 2012). Despite the improving understanding of brain areas involved in social cognition, the details of the neural representations and especially the neural dynamics of the different parts of the networks are still poorly understood and require further experimental and theoretical work. "
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    ABSTRACT: People are embedded in social interaction that shapes their brains throughout lifetime. Instead of emerging from lower-level cognitive functions, social interaction could be the default mode via which humans communicate with their environment. Should this hypothesis be true, it would have profound implications on how we think about brain functions and how we dissect and simulate them. We suggest that the research on the brain basis of social cognition and interaction should move from passive spectator science to studies including engaged participants and simultaneous recordings from the brains of the interacting persons.
    Neuron 10/2015; 88(1):181-193. DOI:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.022 · 15.05 Impact Factor
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    • "We observed activation in the FPC and DLPFC , supporting the assumption that , during empathizing with pain shown on the faces of observed models , the perspective - taking process and understanding the emotions of other people take place ( Schulte - Rüther et al . , 2007 ; Decety and Meyer , 2008 ; Bernhardt and Singer , 2012 ; Klimecki et al . , 2013 ) . "
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    ABSTRACT: Empathy is a process that comprises affective sharing, imagining, and understanding the emotions and mental states of others. The brain structures involved in empathy for physical pain include the anterior insula (AI), and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). High empathy may lead people to undertake pro-social behavior. It is important to understand how this process can be changed, and what factors these empathic responses depend on. Physical attractiveness is a major social and evolutional cue, playing a role in the formation of interpersonal evaluation. The aim of the study was to determine how attractiveness affects the level of empathy both in relation to self-rated behavior and in terms of activation of specific empathy-related brain regions. Twenty-seven subjects (14 female and 13 male) were studied using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) method while they were watching short video scenes involving physically more and less attractive men and women who exhibited pain responses. In the absence of behavioral effects in compassion ratings, we observed stronger activation in empathic brain structures (ACC; AI) for less attractive men and for attractive women than for attractive men. Evolutionary psychology studies suggest that beauty is valued more highly in females than males, which might lead observers to empathize more strongly with the attractive woman than the men. Attractive mens' faces are typically associated with enhanced masculine facial characteristics and are considered to possess fewer desirable personality traits compared with feminized faces. This could explain why more empathy was shown to less attractive men. In conclusion, the study showed that the attractiveness and sex of a model are important modulators of empathy for pain.
    Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 09/2015; 9. DOI:10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00236 · 3.27 Impact Factor
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