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.

    • "Although shared representations are fundamental to affective empathy, a complete overlap between one's own pain and the pain of others would lead to overwhelming personal distress and actually hamper our ability to respond empathically (Decety and Lamm, 2006). In fact, a number of cognitive, emotional, and social factors have been found to modulate our responses to the pain of others, ranging from personal characteristics (trait empathy, alexithymia), mood state, perceived fairness, and in-group vs. out-group status (Bernhardt and Singer, 2012;Bufalari and Ionta, 2013). The current study focuses on two such modulators, perspective taking and contextual appraisals, that have been found to impact activation patterns during pain empathy tasks. "
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    ABSTRACT: Although it has been proposed that schizophrenia is characterized by impaired empathy, several recent studies found intact neural responses on tasks measuring the affective subdomain of empathy. This study further examined affective empathy in 21 schizophrenia outpatients and 21 healthy controls using a validated pain empathy paradigm with two components: (a) observing videos of people described as medical patients who were receiving a painful sound stimulation treatment; (b) listening to the painful sounds (to create Regions of Interest). The observing videos component incorporated experimental manipulations of perspective taking (instructions to imagine "Self" vs. "Other" experiencing pain) and cognitive appraisal (information about whether treatment was "Effective" vs. "Not Effective"). When considering activation across experimental conditions, both groups showed similar dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and anterior insula (AI) activation while merely observing others in pain. However, there were group differences associated with perspective taking: controls showed relatively greater dACC and AI activation for the Self vs. Other contrast whereas patients showed relatively greater activation in these and additional regions for the Other vs. Self contrast. Although patients demonstrated grossly intact neural activity while observing others in pain, they showed more subtle abnormalities when required to toggle between imagining themselves versus others experiencing pain.
    No preview · Article · Jan 2016 · Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
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    • "Social cognition refers to our ability to understand each other and encompasses capacities such as empathy, the ability to share affective states of others (Singer et al. 2004; Bernhardt and Singer 2012), and theory of mind (ToM; also referred to as mentalizing), the ability to attribute mental states to others and to understand that they can differ from our own (Premack and Woodruff 1978; Frith and Frith 2003, 2006). On a conceptual level, it is possible to discriminate between both forms of social cognition. "
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    ABSTRACT: Functional neuroimaging studies have suggested the existence of 2 largely distinct social cognition networks, one for theory of mind (taking others' cognitive perspective) and another for empathy (sharing others' affective states). To address whether these networks can also be dissociated at the level of brain structure, we combined behavioral phenotyping across multiple socio-cognitive tasks with 3-Tesla MRI cortical thickness and structural covariance analysis in 270 healthy adults, recruited across 2 sites. Regional thickness mapping only provided partial support for divergent substrates, highlighting that individual differences in empathy relate to left insular-opercular thickness while no correlation between thickness and mentalizing scores was found. Conversely, structural covariance analysis showed clearly divergent network modulations by socio-cognitive and -affective phenotypes. Specifically, individual differences in theory of mind related to structural integration between temporo-parietal and dorsomedial prefrontal regions while empathy modulated the strength of dorsal anterior insula networks. Findings were robust across both recruitment sites, suggesting generalizability. At the level of structural network embedding, our study provides a double dissociation between empathy and mentalizing. Moreover, our findings suggest that structural substrates of higher-order social cognition are reflected rather in interregional networks than in the the local anatomical markup of specific regions per se.
    Full-text · Article · Nov 2015 · Cerebral Cortex
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    • "Yet, truth telling appears to meet Sip et al.'s (2012) criteria for a " complex social interaction " —in other words, it " involves a broad set of cognitive processes, including the ability (i) to determine the possible courses of action and to identify how they could be coordinated with the interlocutor, (ii) to weigh these available courses of action against one another, and (iii) to choose which action to perform next in the interaction " (Sip et al., 2012). Our study began with two hypotheses: (1) we hypothesized that being asked to tell the truth engages areas of the brain that have previously been associated with mentalizing, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex (Amodio and Frith, 2006) and the insular cortex (Bernhardt and Singer, 2012), but only when truth telling required social reasoning compared to factual reasoning. This was based on the hypothesis that telling the truth in a social context requires predicting the mental point of view of another person and empathizing in terms of predicting the feelings of that person; (2) we hypothesized that these processes would be pronounced when telling the truth about in-group compared to out-group members. "
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    ABSTRACT: "Truth" has been used as a baseline condition in several functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of deception. However, like deception, telling the truth is an inherently social construct, which requires consideration of another person's mental state, a phenomenon known as Theory of Mind. Using a novel ecological paradigm, we examined blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) responses during social and simple truth telling. Participants (n = 27) were randomly divided into two competing teams. Post-competition, each participant was scanned while evaluating performances from in-group and out-group members. Participants were asked to be honest and were told that their evaluations would be made public. We found increased BOLD responses in the medial prefrontal cortex, bilateral anterior insula and precuneus when participants were asked to tell social truths compared to simple truths about another person. At the behavioral level, participants were slower at responding to social compared to simple questions about another person. These findings suggest that telling the truth is a nuanced cognitive operation that is dependent on the degree of mentalizing. Importantly, we show that the cortical regions engaged by truth telling show a distinct pattern when the task requires social reasoning.
    Full-text · Article · Nov 2015 · Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
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