Getting a grip on other minds: Mirror neurons, intention understanding, and cognitive empathy

Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.
Social neuroscience (Impact Factor: 2.66). 09/2006; 1(3-4):175-83. DOI: 10.1080/17470910600985605
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT We have previously shown that a right inferior frontal mirror neuron area for grasping responds differently to observed grasping actions embedded in contexts that suggest different intentions, such as drinking and cleaning (Iacoboni, Molnar-Szakacs, Gallese, Buccino, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 2005). Information about intentions, however, may be conveyed also by the grasping action itself: for instance, people typically drink by grasping the handle of a cup with a precision grip. In this fMRI experiment, subjects watched precision grips and whole-hand prehensions embedded in a drinking or an eating context. Indeed, in the right inferior frontal mirror neuron area there was higher activity for observed precision grips in the drinking context. Signal changes in the right inferior frontal mirror neuron area were also significantly correlated with scores on Empathic Concern subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a measure of emotional empathy. These data suggest that human mirror neuron areas use both contextual and grasping type information to predict the intentions of others. They also suggest that mirror neuron activity is strongly linked to social competence.

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    • "Our third measure was also designed to assess affect sharing, reflecting the proposition that people understand and interpret emotional facial expressions by automatically simulating (i.e., by empathizing with) the observed expression (Preston and de Waal, 2002; Kaplan and Iacoboni, 2006). Although this 'simulation account' has been disputed (Gallese and Sinigaglia, 2011), it implies that people with high IA, who experience their own emotions more strongly, are likely to perform well when recognizing facial expressions in the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test (Baron- Cohen et al., 2001). "
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    ABSTRACT: Interoception, defined as afferent information arising from within the body, is the basis of all emotional experience and underpins the 'self.' However, people vary in the extent to which interoceptive signals reach awareness. This trait modulates both their experience of emotion and their ability to distinguish 'self' from 'other' in multisensory contexts. The experience of emotion and the degree of self/other distinction or overlap are similarly fundamental to empathy, which is an umbrella term comprising affect sharing, empathic concern and perspective-taking (PT). A link has therefore often been assumed between interoceptive awareness (IA) and empathy despite a lack of clear evidence. To test the hypothesis that individual differences in both traits should correlate, we measured IA in four experiments, using a well-validated heartbeat perception task, and compared this with scores on several tests that relate to various aspects of empathy. We firstly measured scores on the Index of Interpersonal Reactivity and secondly on the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy. Thirdly, because the 'simulationist' account assumes that affect sharing is involved in recognizing emotion, we employed the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task' for the recognition of facial expressions. Contrary to expectation, we found no significant relationships between IA and any aspect of these measures. This striking lack of direct links has important consequences for hypotheses about the extent to which empathy is necessarily embodied. Finally, to assess cognitive PT ability, which specifically requires self/other distinction, we used the 'Director Task' but found no relationship. We conclude that the abilities that make up empathy are potentially related to IA in a variety of conflicting ways, such that a direct association between IA and various components of empathy has yet to be established.
    Frontiers in Psychology 05/2015; 06. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00554 · 2.80 Impact Factor
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    • "In his Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) questionnaire, Davis highlights four different aspects of empathy: (1) perspective-taking, which is defined as the individual's spontaneous attempt to take the perspective of others; (2) fantasy, which refers to the ability of individuals to identify themselves with characters encountered in movies and books; (3) empathic concern, defined as the feelings of concern and compassion that individuals may experience for others; and (4) personal distress, which refers to the negative feeling of anxiety and distress that people undergo while observing someone in a negative situation. Within the most recent categorization of empathy, Davis' dimensions of perspective-taking and fantasy are conceptualized as cognitive empathy and empathic concern and personal distress as emotional empathy (Kaplan and Iacoboni, 2006). "
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    ABSTRACT: Previous studies have shown that sleep loss has a detrimental effect on the ability of the individuals to process emotional information. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that this negative effect extends to the ability of experiencing emotions while observing other individuals, i.e. emotional empathy. To test this hypothesis, we assessed emotional empathy in 37 healthy volunteers who were assigned randomly to one of three experimental groups: one group was tested before and after a night of total sleep deprivation (sleep deprivation group), a second group was tested before and after a usual night of sleep spent at home (sleep group) and the third group was tested twice during the same day (day group). Emotional empathy was assessed by using two parallel versions of a computerized test measuring direct (i.e. explicit evaluation of empathic concern) and indirect (i.e. the observer's reported physiological arousal) emotional empathy. The results revealed that the post measurements of both direct and indirect emotional empathy of participants in the sleep deprivation group were significantly lower than those of the sleep and day groups; post measurement scores of participants in the day and sleep groups did not differ significantly for either direct or indirect emotional empathy. These data are consistent with previous studies showing the negative effect of sleep deprivation on the processing of emotional information, and extend these effects to emotional empathy. The findings reported in our study are relevant to healthy individuals with poor sleep habits, as well as clinical populations suffering from sleep disturbances.
    Journal of Sleep Research 08/2014; 23(6). DOI:10.1111/jsr.12192 · 3.35 Impact Factor
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    • "Environmental and social context in which an action is framed play an important role in understanding action meaning, and the HMNs likely underlies this ability. The role of the context has already been investigated in fMRI studies (Iacoboni et al., 2005; Kaplan and Iacoboni, 2006) showing a modulation of HMNs responses to observed actions differently framed. Moreover, in an EEG study, Oberman et al. (2007) demonstrated that mu wave suppression, used as an index of MN activity , was greater for experimental conditions where subjects watched videos showing social interactions (three individuals tossed a ball to each other and occasionally the ball would be thrown off the screen toward the viewer), as compared to videos showing no interaction (three individuals tossed a ball up in the air to themselves). "
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    ABSTRACT: Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) studies showed that watching others' movements enhances motor evoked potentials (MEPs) amplitude of the muscles involved in the observed action (motor facilitation, MF). MF has been attributed to a mirror neuron system mediated mechanism, causing an excitability increment of primary motor cortex. It is still unclear whether the meaning an action assumes when performed in an interpersonal exchange context could affect MF. This study aims at exploring this issue by measuring MF induced by the observation of the same action coupled with opposite reward values (gain VS loss) in an economic game. Moreover, the interaction frame was manipulated by showing the same actions within different economic games, the Dictator Game (DG) and the Theft Game (TG). Both games involved two players: a Dictator/Thief and a receiver. Experimental participants played the game always as receivers whereas the Dictator/Thief roles were played by our confederates. In each game Dictator/Thief's choices were expressed by showing a grasping action of one of two cylinders, previously associated to fair/unfair choices. In the DG the dictator decides whether to share (gain condition) or not (no-gain condition) a sum of money with the receiver, while in TGs the thief decides whether to steal (loss condition) or not to steal (no-loss condition) it from the participants. While the experimental subjects watched the videos showing these movements, a single TMS pulse was delivered to their motor hand area and a MEP was recorded from the right FDI muscle. Results show that, in the DG, MF was enhanced by the status quo modification, i.e. MEPs amplitude increased when the dictator decided to change the receivers' status quo and share his/her money, and this was true when the status quo was more salient (in the no-gain condition). The same was true for the TG, where the reverse happened: MF was higher for trials in which the thief decided to steal the participants' money, thus changing the status quo, in blocks when the status quo maintenance occurred more often, i.e. in the no-loss condition. Data support the hypothesis that the economic meaning of the observed actions differently modulates MEPs amplitude, pointing at an influence on MF exerted by a peculiar interaction between economic outcomes and variation of the subjects' initial status quo.
    NeuroImage 06/2014; 101. DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.06.056 · 6.36 Impact Factor
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