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

ABSTRACT 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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    • "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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    • "A large body of evidence has suggested that the DMN plays an important role in empathy (Spreng et al., 2009; Schnell et al., 2011; Bernhardt and Singer, 2012). Some core regions in the FPC have also been reported to be involved in empathy, including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, right temporoparietal junction, anterior insula and supplementary motor area (Corbetta et al., 2008; Fan et al., 2011; Bernhardt and Singer, 2012). Intriguingly, the core nodes of the FPC and DMN, i.e. the dlPFC and mPFC (Buckner et al., 2008; Vincent et al., 2008), were indicated to be associated with trait emotional intelligence in a recent resting-state study (Takeuchi et al., 2013). "
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    ABSTRACT: An extensive body of literature has indicated that there is increased activity in the frontoparietal control network (FPC) and decreased activity in the default mode network (DMN) during working memory (WM) tasks. The FPC and DMN operate in a competitive relationship during tasks requiring externally-directed attention. However, the association between this FPC-DMN competition and performance in social WM tasks has rarely been reported in previous studies. To investigate this question, we measured FPC-DMN connectivity during resting-state and two emotional face recognition WM tasks using the 2-back paradigm. Thirty-four individuals were instructed to perform the tasks based on either the expression (EMO) or the identity (ID) of the same set of face stimuli. Consistent with previous studies, an increased anti-correlation between the FPC and DMN was observed during both tasks relative to the resting-state. Specifically, this anti-correlation during the EMO task was stronger than during the ID task, as the former has a higher social load. Intriguingly, individual differences in self-reported empathy were significantly correlated with the FPC-DMN anti-correlation in the EMO task. These results indicate that the top-down signals from the FPC suppress the DMN to support social WM and empathy. © The Author (2015). Published by Oxford University Press. For Permissions, please email:
    Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 08/2015; 10(8). DOI:10.1093/scan/nsu160 · 7.37 Impact Factor
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    • "Activity in the AI is thought to represent a simulated mapping of the observed indi - vidual ' s body state onto one ' s own ( Fan et al . , 2011 ; Bernhardt and Singer , 2012 ) . Two studies have linked subsequent prosocial behav - ior with AI activity when viewing another ' s suffering ( Hein et al . "
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    ABSTRACT: Although kindness-based contemplative practices are increasingly employed by clinicians and cognitive researchers to enhance prosocial emotions, social cognitive skills, and well-being, and as a tool to understand the basic workings of the social mind, we lack a coherent theoretical model with which to test the mechanisms by which kindness-based meditation may alter the brain and body. Here, we link contemplative accounts of compassion and loving-kindness practices with research from social cognitive neuroscience and social psychology to generate predictions about how diverse practices may alter brain structure and function and related aspects of social cognition. Contingent on the nuances of the practice, kindness-based meditation may enhance the neural systems related to faster and more basic perceptual or motor simulation processes, simulation of another's affective body state, slower and higher-level perspective-taking, modulatory processes such as emotion regulation and self/other discrimination, and combinations thereof.This theoretical model will be discussed alongside best practices for testing such a model and potential implications and applications of future work.
    Frontiers in Psychology 03/2015; 6. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00109 · 2.80 Impact Factor
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