An fMRI investigation of empathy for 'social pain' and subsequent prosocial behavior

Center for Mind and Brain, University of California, Davis, CA, USA.
NeuroImage (Impact Factor: 6.36). 03/2011; 55(1):381-8. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.060
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Despite empathy's importance for promoting social interactions, neuroimaging research has largely overlooked empathy during social experiences. Here, we examined neural activity during empathy for social exclusion and assessed how empathy-related neural processes might relate to subsequent prosocial behavior toward the excluded victim. During an fMRI scan, participants observed one person being excluded by two others, and afterwards sent emails to each of these 'people.' Later, a group of raters assessed how prosocial (e.g., helpful, comforting) the emails were. Observing exclusion (vs. inclusion) activated regions associated with mentalizing (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus), and highly empathic individuals activated both mentalizing regions and social pain-related regions (anterior insula, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex). Additionally, the empathy-related activity in the anterior insula and medial prefrontal cortex was associated with later prosocial behavior toward the victim, and exploratory mediation analyses indicated that medial prefrontal cortex activity, in particular, may support the link between trait empathy and prosocial behavior. Overall, findings suggest that empathy-related neural responses to social experiences may promote spontaneous prosocial treatment of those in need.

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Available from: Sylvia A. Morelli, Sep 27, 2015
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    • "Likewise, the experience of vicarious social pain (henceforth SP) — and particularly embarrassment — is thought to serve a similar function, thereby signaling threats to another's social integrity [Macdonald and Leary, 2005; Krach et al., 2011; Paulus et al., 2014]. Vicarious responses for SP result in cortical activation comparable to those associated with vicarious PP [Immordino-Yang et al., 2009; Krach et al., 2011; Masten et al., 2011], and are coupled with increased autonomic activation [M€ uller-Pinzler et al., 2012]. Most of the previous neuroimaging studies have framed social pain rather narrow and used paradigms of social exclusion [Eisenberger, 2012a,b; Eisenberger and Lieberman , 2004]. "
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    ABSTRACT: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by substantial social deficits. The notion that dysfunctions in neural circuits involved in sharing another's affect explain these deficits is appealing, but has received only modest experimental support. Here we evaluated a complex paradigm on the vicarious social pain of embarrassment to probe social deficits in ASD as to whether it is more potent than paradigms currently in use. To do so we acquired pupillometry and fMRI in young adults with ASD and matched healthy controls. During a simple vicarious physical pain task no differences emerged between groups in behavior, pupillometry, and neural activation of the anterior insula (AIC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In contrast, processing complex vicarious social pain yielded reduced responses in ASD on all physiological measures of sharing another's affect. The reduced activity within the AIC was thereby explained by the severity of autistic symptoms in the social and affective domain. Additionally, behavioral responses lacked correspondence with the anterior cingulate and anterior insula cortex activity found in controls. Instead, behavioral responses in ASD were associated with hippocampal activity. The observed dissociation echoes the clinical observations that deficits in ASD are most pronounced in complex social situations and simple tasks may not probe the dysfunctions in neural pathways involved in sharing affect. Our results are highly relevant because individuals with ASD may have preserved abilities to share another's physical pain but still have problems with the vicarious representation of more complex emotions that matter in life. Hum Brain Mapp, 2015. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
    Human Brain Mapping 09/2015; DOI:10.1002/hbm.22949 · 5.97 Impact Factor
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    • "wo studies have linked subsequent prosocial behav - ior with AI activity when viewing another ' s suffering ( Hein et al . , 2010 ; Masten et al . , 2011 ) . Importantly , these results were found using different paradigms , with one study inducing empathy in subjects by leading them to believe others were being excluded in a ball - tossing game ( Masten et al . , 2011 ) and the other had subjects watch others receive painful shocks and then gave them the choice to endure painful shocks on behalf of the other ( Hein et al . , 2010 ) . In both cases , the finding that altruistic behavior was predicted by AI activity supports the idea that affective simula - tion is , at least in some cases , causal to "
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    • "By connecting we mean having a similar target, a shared goal with respect to the target, and by disconnecting we mean dissimilarity, or an antagonistic goal with respect to the target. These investigations compared reactions to friend vs foe, in-group vs out-group, friend vs stranger, the humanized vs the dehumanized (Harris and Fiske, 2006; Singer et al., 2006; Gutsell and Inzlicht, 2010; Masten et al., 2011; Meyer et al., 2012; Sobhani et al., 2012). The common denominator is that we may easily assimilate emotionally with friends, in-group members and fellow humans, but not in the case of our foes, the out-groups and the dehumanized. "
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