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Human and animal-directed empathy during social interactions: A multi-method approach with hemodynamic (fNIRS), electrocortical (EEG) and autonomic measures



Objective Our relationships are characterized by interactions with other humans, but also with animal companions. Such interactions are mediated by empathic competencies which, however, conventionally refers to emotional concerns for another person. Research revealed that human–animal relationships provide opportunities to increase empathy, but the presence of animal-directed empathy and its neural correlates have still to be explored. The present study aimed to investigate common and specific neural correlates while viewing intra and interspecies interactions, with particular attention to their valence, and to personality components. Methods Participants were submitted to positive, negative and neutral pictures while hemodynamic (NIRS), electrocortical (EEG) and autonomic measures (heart rate, HR; electrodermal activity, EDA) were simultaneously recorded. Results Data showed the presence of common patterns of activation for both interactions (human- and animal-directed), suggesting they are not mutually exclusive, but differentially predominant. Anyway the presence of some differences also emerged, suggesting the way we process different interactions may also be specific. Conclusions Results suggest that empathy is not a response we save for our conspecific, but can also be extended to animals. Key message The presence of homologous but also partially differentiated channels for the development of empathic competencies through types of interactions was underlined.
In the last years social neuroscience research attempted to identify the neural networks underlying the human ability to perceive others'
emotions, a core process in establishing meaningful social bonds. However, whereas these mechanisms were explored in depth during
human interactions, limited research focused on non-human social contexts. Actually we do not establish relations only with humans, but
also with other animals, even if it’s not clear whether we can experience similar empathic responses while viewing both human-human
(HH) and human-animal (HA) interactions (Vanutelli & Balconi, 2015a,b). To answer this issue we measured prefrontal brain responses and
autonomic reactions in empathic tendencies toward different interpersonal affective conditions.
PARTICIPANTS: Mage=25.88; SD=2.03
1) Both electrophysiological and hemodynamic components were modulated by valence, with a specific prefrontal left/right lateralization
effect related to positive/negative interactions, according to the Approach-Withdrawal model of emotion (Davidson, 1983).
2) EEG data showed that intra- and inter-species contexts evoked similar ERP patterns, with higher frontal N200 amplitudes to positive and
negative stimuli. This component was found to be directly related to the emotional relevance of the context (Balconi & Pozzoli, 2007). Thus, it can
be hypothesized that both contexts elicit an affective component, finalized to alert the emotional behavior in response to highly significant
3) Nevertheless fNIRS showed some specificities as a function of valence, with higher responses for HH negative and HA positive stimuli,
which could be supposed to be the most salient contexts to be processed.
4) Nonetheless, irrespective of valence, autonomic data showed that HA contexts were related to higher bodily reactions, probably related
to the presence of a non-conspecific.
Balconi, M., & Pozzoli, U. (2007). Event-related oscillations (EROs) and event-related
potentials (ERPs) comparison in facial expression recognition. Journal of
Neuropsychology, 1(Pt 2), 283-294.
Davidson, R. J. (1983). Hemispheric specialization for cognition and affect. In: A. Gale, & J.
Edwards (Eds.) Physiological Correlates of Human Behavior. London: Academic Press. pp.
STIMULI and PROCEDURE: Subjects were required
to observe 48 affective pictures depicting interactions
between humans-humans (HH) and humans-animals
(HA), with positive, negative and neutral valence
EEG: 16-channel System
over AFF3, AFF4, Fz, AFp1,
AFp2, C3, C4, Cz, P3, P4, Pz,
T7, T8, O1, O2.
Human and animal-directed empathy during social interactions:
A multi-method approach with hemodynamic (fNIRS), electrocortical (EEG) and autonomic measures.
Vanutelli, M. E.1,2, Balconi, M.1,2
1Department of Psychology, Catholic University of Milan, Milan, Italy;
2Research Unit in Affective and Social Neuroscience, Catholic University of Milan, Milan, Italy
fNIRS: 6-channels with4 light
sources (AF3-AF4 and F5-
F6) and 4 detectors (AFF1-
AFF2 and F3-F4).
Electrocardiographic activity
(ECG), skin conductance
response (SCR) and level (SCL).
Vanutelli, M. E., & Balconi, M. (2015a). Empathy and prosocial behaviors: Insights from
intra- and inter-species interactions. The International Journal of Phylosophy and
Psychology, 6(1), 88-109.
Vanutelli, M. E., & Balconi, M. (2015b). Perceiving emotions in human-human and human-
animal interactions: Hemodynamic prefrontal activity (fNIRS) and empathic concern.
Neuroscience Letters, 605, 1-6.
Discussion and Conclusions
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