Witnessing peer rejection during early adolescence: Neural correlates of empathy for experiences of social exclusion

Department of Psychology, University of California, 1285 Franz Hall, Box 951563, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563, USA.
Social neuroscience (Impact Factor: 2.87). 10/2010; 5(5-6):496-507. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2010.490673
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Neuroimaging studies with adults have begun to reveal the neural bases of empathy; however, this research has focused on empathy for physical pain, rather than empathy for negative social experiences. Moreover, this work has not examined adolescents who may frequently witness and empathize with others that experience negative social experiences such as peer rejection. Here, we examined neural activity among early adolescents observing social exclusion compared to observing inclusion, and how this activity related to both trait empathy and subsequent prosocial behavior. Participants were scanned while they observed an individual whom they believed was being socially excluded. At least one day prior to the scan they reported their trait empathy, and following the scan they wrote emails to the excluded victim that were rated for prosocial behavior (e.g., helping, comforting). Observing exclusion compared to inclusion activated regions involved in mentalizing (i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal cortex), particularly among highly empathic individuals. Additionally, individuals who displayed more activity in affective, pain-related regions during observed exclusion compared to inclusion subsequently wrote more prosocial emails to excluded victims. Overall findings suggest that when early adolescents witness social exclusion in their daily lives, some may actually 'feel the pain' of the victims and act more prosocially toward them as a result.

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Available from: Mirella Dapretto, Jul 24, 2015
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    • "Other than previous neuroimaging studies related to empathizing, findings from lesion studies or gray matter structural studies of neurodegenerative diseases have also consistently indicated that mPFC (especially the vmPFC) is involved with empathy (though, structures that are involved with empathy seem to vary between studies as well as between diseases; Rankin et al., 2006; Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2003, 2009). Furthermore, although a number of regions are activated during empathy, including mPFC (Morelli and Lieberman, 2013; Rameson et al., 2011; Singer, 2006), subjects with higher empathy experience greater activation of mPFC while observing social exclusion (Masten et al., 2010), viewing social scenes (Wagner et al., 2011), and during empathy (Rameson et al., 2011). Also, empathically accurate, as compared with inaccurate, judgments depended on the activity of the mPFC (Zaki et al., 2009). "
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    • "Vicarious ostracism involves different brain regions depending upon the ostracized target; observing a friend's ostracism activated regions associated with direct ostracism experience (i.e., dACC and insula), whereas a stranger's ostracism involved mentalizing-relevant regions (i.e., DMPFC, precuneus, and temporal pole; Meyer et al., 2012). Finally, brain activation in the AI and MPFC—regions associated with trait empathy—correlated with pro-social responses toward the ostracized target (Masten et al., 2010, 2011a). "
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    • "This would support a system of experience sharing or prosocial concern; whereas mentalizing may engage separable neural systems. In an experiment by Masten et al. (2010), mentalizing is shown to increase future helping behavior, suggesting a distinct system supporting prosocial behavior through experience sharing and mentalizing. The prosocial system is indicated in Figure 2. "
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