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Clarifying the relationship between trait empathy and action-based resonance indexed by EEG mu-rhythm suppression

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Abstract

Sensorimotor resonance, the vicarious activation of the sensory motor system during observation of another's actions, is thought to contribute to important social functions including empathy. Previous research has shown that sensorimotor resonance, as measured by suppression of the electrophysiological (EEG) mu rhythm, is predicted by trait empathy, but findings are inconsistent. Here we report data from a high-powered study (N = 252) to clarify the relationship between sensorimotor resonance as indexed by mu suppression during action observation and trait empathy as measured by the well-established Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). Our initial pre-registered analyses at central electrode locations indicate that sensorimotor resonance is unrelated to general trait empathy or its sub-facets, however, these effects could not be isolated from attention-related occipital alpha. An additional non-registered analysis using Independent Component Analysis (ICA) to look at the isolated central mu-component clarified the relationship. Results confirmed the lack of a relationship between the mu-component and the perspective taking, personal distress, or fantasy facets of the IRI, but suggest a possible association with empathic concern such that greater resonance is associated with greater empathic concern. These results question the previously assumed relationship between trait empathy and sensorimotor resonance and highlight the need to investigate experience sharing tendencies in the context of simulation-based resonance.

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... This finding indicates that the same task in different contexts can have different activation patterns (Iacoboni et al., 2005). Therefore, mirror neurons located in different brain areas are related to distinct environmental interpretations and tasks, thus two mirror neuron networks are hypothesized: one sensorimotor and another limbic (Bowman et al., 2017;DiGirolamo et al., 2019). The sensorimotor mirror neuron network would be related to identification and conceptualization of hand gestures, while the limbic one would be activated by mouth movements and facial expression, the latter being involved in emotional contagion (Fig. 4). ...
... Alterations to this rhythm indicate the engagement of neuronal regions and, specifically, suppression of the mu rhythm is associated with MNS activation (Hobson and Bishop, 2017). Mu suppression has been related to both empathic concern and personal distress, as well as self-reported empathy (DiGirolamo et al., 2019;Woodruff et al., 2011). Moreover, mu suppression responses to facial expressions have been demonstrated in neonates, infants and adults (Ensenberg et al., 2017;Rayson et al., 2016). ...
... The great majority of studies evaluating the role of MNS in humans involve non-invasive techniques, such as fMRI and EEG. These studies involve asking the subjects to observe, identify, match or even imitate facial expressions (Budell et al., 2015;Carr et al., 2003;DiGirolamo et al., 2019;Iacoboni et al., 2005;Kaplan and Iacoboni, 2006;Oberman et al., 2007;Pfeifer et al., 2008;Rayson et al., 2016;van der Gaag et al., 2007). Consideration should be made, however, regarding the underpowered sample size of several fMRI studies, which may not render replicable results (Bossier et al., 2020;Szucs and Ioannidis, 2020). ...
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Contagious depression is a theory proposing that depression can be induced or triggered by our social environment. This theory is based on emotional contagion, the idea that affective states can be transferred during social interaction, since humans can use emotional contagion to communicate feelings and emotions in conscious and unconscious ways. This review presents behavioral, physiological, and neuroanatomical aspects of two essential contagious depression mechanisms, automatic mimicry and the mirror neuron system.
... The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1980) is typically used to examine the relationship between mirror neurons and empathy, as it has a specific perspective taking (PT) subscale, which targets cognitive empathy (Joyal et al., 2018;Woodruff et al., 2011). However, other studies have demonstrated that mu suppression is also related to the empathic concern (EC) and personal distress (PD) subscales (Cheng et al., 2008a;DiGirolamo et al., 2019). A negative correlation between self-report empathy (indexed by EC and PT subscales) and mu suppression is observed, demonstrating that as empathy increases, so does the amount of suppression (Woodruff et al., 2011). ...
... A negative correlation between self-report empathy (indexed by EC and PT subscales) and mu suppression is observed, demonstrating that as empathy increases, so does the amount of suppression (Woodruff et al., 2011). However, some studies have failed to find a relationship between suppression and self-reported empathy (DiGirolamo et al., 2019;Moore et al., 2012), or observed a relationship in the inverse direction of what is typically expected (Woodruff and Klein, 2013). Furthermore, where there are significant correlations reported in the literature, these are typically a moderate to small effect size (Hobson and Bishop, 2017). ...
... The IRI is comprised of 24 items made up of 4 subscales: perspective taking (PT), personal distress (PD), empathic concern (EC), and fantasy. Prior research exploring correlations between mirror neurons and self-report empathy have predominantly focused on the PT, EC, and PD subscales (Cheng et al., 2008a,b;DiGirolamo et al., 2019;Joyal et al., 2018;Woodruff et al., 2011). Following prior research, we did not include the fantasy subscale in our analyses, due to its focus on fictional characters. ...
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Tears are a facial expression of emotion that readily elicit empathic responses from observers. It is currently unknown whether these empathic responses to tears are influenced by specific neural substrates. The EEG mu rhythm is one method of investigating the human mirror neuron system, purported to underlie the sharing of affective states and a facilitator of social cognition. The purpose of this research was to explore the mu response to tearful expressions of emotion. Sixty-eight participants viewed happy and sad faces, both with and without tears, in addition to a neutral control condition. Participants first completed an emotion discrimination task, and then an imitation condition where they were required to mimic the displayed expression. Mu enhancement was found in response to the discrimination task, whilst suppression was demonstrated in response to the imitation condition. Examination of the suppression scores revealed that greater suppression was observed in response to happy-tear and sad tear-free expressions. Planned contrasts exploring suppression to neutral faces revealed no significant differences between emotional and neutral conditions. The mu response to neutral expressions resembled that of the happy-tear and the sad tear-free conditions, lending support to the idea that ambiguous emotional expressions require greater sensorimotor engagement. This study provides preliminary evidence for the role of the mirror neuron system in discerning tearful expressions of emotion in the absence of context.
... This finding was in line with earlier evidence of S1 activation during pain perception (Bushnell et al., 1999) and generated many studies investigating the overlap or dissociation between pain empathy and pain perception (Zaki et al., 2016). In parallel, Electroencephalography (EEG) evidence accumulated to point out that during pain empathy, the sensorimotor cortex and possibly neighboring regions consistently generate oscillation in the alpha-band (Chen et al., 2012;DiGirolamo et al., 2019;Hoenen et al., 2015;Mu et al., 2008;Peled-Avron et al., 2018;Perry et al., 2010;Riečanský & Lamm, 2019;Woodruff & Klein, 2013;Woodruff & Maaske, 2010;Woodruff et al., 2011;Yang et al., 2009). However, it was not until that magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used, with its excellent ability to localize rhythmic generators at the surface of the brain, when it became clearer that empathy does not suppress the dominant alpha oscillations that are generated by the occipital cortex. ...
... This corroborated rich prior evidence on the correlation between suppression of the alpha rhythm and BOLD activation (Scheeringa & Fries, 2019). Altogether, this and other rich literature during the past two decades (DiGirolamo et al., 2019;Hoenen et al., 2015;Joyal et al., 2018;Motoyama et al., 2017;Peled-Avron et al., 2018;Riečanský & Lamm, 2019;Woodruff & Klein, 2013;Woodruff & Maaske, 2010;Woodruff et al., 2011) point out that alpha rhythm generated by S1 (i.e., mu rhythm) is perhaps the most consistently observed neural representation underlying empathy for others' physical pain. ...
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Introduction Alpha oscillations are unique in their capacity to relay neuronal information through a dual‐process named “gating by inhibition”: rhythmic enhancement inhibits task‐irrelevant regions while rhythmic suppression engages task‐relevant regions in the brain. A social‐cognitive process that operates by relying on the suppression of the alpha rhythm in the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) is the ability to generate empathy. This phenomenon has been evidenced in dozens of electrophysiological studies targeting adult human subjects. Yet, recent studies on the neurodevelopment of empathy indicate that in younger age, empathy does not involve alpha suppression in S1 but only enhancement. More interestingly, right before adulthood, this rhythm is still enhanced, but in a remarkable shift, a pattern of suppression emerges. In this registered magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we will capture frequency‐decomposed neural activity particularly at the alpha range and its corresponding hemodynamic response and target subjects at around 20 years old as a unique time‐window in development that allows investigating in parallel both low‐alpha suppression and high‐alpha enhancement. We aim to address two questions: (a) Does alpha power suppression in the S1 region during empathy correspond to BOLD increase in this region? (b) What is the functional role of alpha power enhancement during empathy development (BOLD signal increase or decrease)? Addressing these questions will particularly advance knowledge on the process of empathy in the brain, and the way in which it is underpinned by alpha oscillations. Moreover, examining these experimental outcomes can potentially lay the ground for future studies that would further examine the role of alpha oscillations in empathy during the course of development. Methods Brain data of forty healthy individuals close to 20 years old will be recorded in two consecutive MEG and fMRI sessions while subjects observing physical pain versus neutral stimuli. Besides, each participant's subjective experiences wll be measred by questionnaires, interviews and rating of the stimuli.
... Cortical source estimates show that mu-suppression occurs primarily around the central sulcus (Hari and Kujala, 2009), confirming its somatosensory origin, and it correlates with activation of the mirroring network (Perry and Bentin, 2009;Arnstein et al., 2011;Mizuhara, 2012;Braadbaart et al., 2013). Mu-suppression also correlates with empathic responses (DiGirolamo et al., 2019), action prediction (Woodruff et al., 2011) and emotion identification (Pineda and Hecht, 2009); all of which might be affected by dehumanization. It also responds to manipulations consistent with moderators of dehumanization, like power imbalances (Gwinn et al., 2013;Hogeveen et al., 2014), group differences (Leyens et al., 2000;Gutsell and Inzlicht, 2010), and social relevance (Perry et al., 2010;Aragón et al., 2014;Tropp and Barlow, 2018). ...
... We then tested whether this activity was localized to central electrodes, as it is important to differentiate mu-suppression from alpha-suppression (Bowman et al., 2017;Hobson and Bishop, 2017;DiGirolamo et al., 2019). To do so, we ran a preregistered 2 (posteriority: central or occipital) x 2 (laterality: left or right) repeated measures ANOVA comparing suppression at central (C3 (left) and C4 (right)) and occipital electrodes (O1 (left) and O2 (right)). ...
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Dehumanization is the failure to recognize the cognitive and emotional complexities of the people around us. While its presence has been well documented in horrific acts of violence, it is also theorized to play a role in everyday life. We measured its presence and effects in face-to-face dyadic interactions between strangers and found that not only was there variance in the extent to which they perceived one another as human, but this variance predicted neural
... Cortical source estimates show that mu-suppression occurs primarily around the central sulcus (Hari and Kujala, 2009), confirming its somatosensory origin, and it correlates with activation of the mirroring network (Perry and Bentin, 2009;Arnstein et al., 2011;Mizuhara, 2012;Braadbaart et al., 2013). Mu-suppression also correlates with empathic responses (DiGirolamo et al., 2019), action prediction (Woodruff et al., 2011) and emotion identification (Pineda and Hecht, 2009); all of which might be affected by dehumanization. It also responds to manipulations consistent with moderators of dehumanization, like power imbalances (Gwinn et al., 2013;Hogeveen et al., 2014), group differences (Leyens et al., 2000;Gutsell and Inzlicht, 2010), and social relevance (Perry et al., 2010;Aragón et al., 2014;Tropp and Barlow, 2018). ...
... We then tested whether this activity was localized to central electrodes, as it is important to differentiate mu-suppression from alpha-suppression (Bowman et al., 2017;Hobson and Bishop, 2017;DiGirolamo et al., 2019). To do so, we ran a preregistered 2 (posteriority: central or occipital) x 2 (laterality: left or right) repeated measures ANOVA comparing suppression at central (C3 (left) and C4 (right)) and occipital electrodes (O1 (left) and O2 (right)). ...
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Dehumanization is the failure to recognize the cognitive and emotional complexities of the people around us. While its presence has been well documented in horrific acts of violence, it is also theorized to play a role in everyday life. We measured its presence and effects in face-to-face dyadic interactions between strangers and found that not only was there variance in the extent to which they perceived one another as human, but this variance predicted neural processing and behavior. Specifically, participants showed stronger neural mirroring, indexed by EEG mu-suppression, in response to partners they evaluated as more human, suggesting their brains neurally simulated those targets’ actions more. Participants were also marginally more empathically accurate about the emotions of partners deemed more human and performed better with them on a cooperative task. These results suggest that there are indeed differences in our recognition of the humanity of people we meet—demonstrated for the first time in a real, face-to-face interaction—and that this mundane variation affects our ability to neurally simulate, cooperate, and empathize.
... One measure of potential derived from EEG is desynchronization of the mu rhythm, an index of sensorimotor activity that is observed both when carrying out and observing an action. Individual differences in mu rhythm desynchronization have been linked with empathic tendencies (DiGirolamo, Simon, Hubley, Kopulsky, & Gutsell, 2019), and processing of communicative stimuli (Salo, Ferrari, & Fox, 2019). Infant mu rhythm desynchronization is influenced by caregiving behavior (Murray et al., 2016;Salo, Debnath, Rowe, & Fox, 2021); however, no research has examined individual differences in parents' mu rhythm activity while processing their own child's communicative behavior. ...
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... This suggests that there is no dichotomy but a multifaceted representation for pain empathy which can be confirmed by lack of correlations between the neural patterns and affective or cognitive trait empathy reports and the correlation of alpha-beta power enhancement pattern with the subjective experience. Lack of neural correlation with trait empathy reports is in line with the recent discussions in the literature regarding the limitation of IRI trait self-report in measuring all aspects of empathy (DiGirolamo et al., 2019). Yet, it is important to consider that the nature of the painful stimuli category might affect the neural correlation with subjective experiences or lack of correlation with affective or cognitive trait empathy. ...
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Neuroscientific research has identified two fundamental components of empathy: shared emotional representations between self and other, and self-other distinction. The concept of shared representations suggests that during empathy, we co-represent another person’s affect by engaging brain and bodily functions underpinning the first-hand experience of the emotion we are empathizing with. This possible grounding of empathy in our own emotional experiences explains the necessity for self-other distinction, which is the capacity to correctly distinguish between our own affective representations and those related to the other. In spite of the importance of these two components in empathy, several aspects still remain controversial. This paper addresses some of them and focuses on (i) the distinction between shared activations versus representations, raising the question what shared representations entail in terms of the underlying neural mechanisms, (ii) the possible mechanisms behind self-other distinction in the cognitive and the affective domains, and whether they have distinct neural underpinnings and (iii) the consequences associated with a selective impairment of one of the two components, thereby addressing their importance in mental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, psychopathy and alexithymia. © 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.
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We present a suite of Bayes factor hypothesis tests that allow researchers to grade the decisiveness of the evidence that the data provide for the presence versus the absence of a correlation between two variables. For concreteness, we apply our methods to the recent work of Donnellan et al. (in press) who conducted nine replication studies with over 3,000 participants and failed to replicate the phenomenon that lonely people compensate for a lack of social warmth by taking warmer baths or showers. We show how the Bayes factor hypothesis test can quantify evidence in favor of the null hypothesis, and how the prior specification for the correlation coefficient can be used to define a broad range of tests that address complementary questions. Specifically, we show how the prior specification can be adjusted to create a two-sided test, a one-sided test, a sensitivity analysis, and a replication test.
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The relation between empathy subtypes and prosocial behavior was investigated in a sample of healthy adults. "empathic concern" and "empathic happiness", defined as negative and positive vicarious emotion (respectively) combined with an other-oriented feeling of "goodwill" (i.e. a thought to do good to others/see others happy), were elicited in 68 adult participants who watched video clips extracted from the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Prosocial behavior was quantified via performance on a non-monetary altruistic decision-making task involving book selection and donation. Empathic concern and empathic happiness were measured via self-report (immediately following each video clip) and via facial electromyography recorded from corrugator (active during frowning) and zygomatic (active during smiling) facial regions. Facial electromyographic signs of (a) empathic concern (i.e. frowning) during sad video clips, and (b) empathic happiness (i.e. smiling) during happy video clips, predicted increased prosocial behavior in the form of increased goodwill-themed book selection/donation. Copyright © 2014. Published by Elsevier B.V.
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Why do we self-sacrifice to help others in distress? Two competing theories have emerged, one suggesting that prosocial behavior is primarily motivated by feelings of empathic other-oriented concern, the other that we help mainly because we are egoistically focused on reducing our own discomfort. Here we explore the relationship between costly altruism and these two sub-processes of empathy, specifically drawing on the caregiving model to test the theory that trait empathic concern (e.g. general tendency to have sympathy for another) and trait personal distress (e.g. predisposition to experiencing aversive arousal states) may differentially drive altruistic behavior. We find that trait empathic concern - and not trait personal distress - motivates costly altruism, and this relationship is supported by activity in the ventral tegmental area, caudate and subgenual anterior cingulate, key regions for promoting social attachment and caregiving. Together, this data helps identify the behavioral and neural mechanisms motivating costly altruism, while demonstrating that individual differences in empathic concern-related brain responses can predict real prosocial choice.
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As humans we are a highly social species: in order to coordinate our joint actions and assure successful communication, we use language skills to explicitly convey information to each other, and social abilities such as empathy or perspective taking to infer another person’s emotions and mental state. The human cognitive capacity to draw inferences about other peoples’ beliefs, intentions and thoughts has been termed mentalizing, theory of mind or cognitive perspective taking. This capacity makes it possible, for instance, to understand that people may have views that differ from our own. Conversely, the capacity to share the feelings of others is called empathy. Empathy makes it possible to resonate with others’ positive and negative feelings alike — we can thus feel happy when we vicariously share the joy of others and we can share the experience of suffering when we empathize with someone in pain. Importantly, in empathy one feels with someone, but one does not confuse oneself with the other; that is, one still knows that the emotion one resonates with is the emotion of another. If this self–other distinction is not present, we speak of emotion contagion, a precursor of empathy that is already present in babies.
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Spike-timing-dependent plasticity is considered the neurophysiological basis of Hebbian learning and has been shown to be sensitive to both contingency and contiguity between pre- and postsynaptic activity. Here, we will examine how applying this Hebbian learning rule to a system of interconnected neurons in the presence of direct or indirect re-afference (e.g. seeing/hearing one's own actions) predicts the emergence of mirror neurons with predictive properties. In this framework, we analyse how mirror neurons become a dynamic system that performs active inferences about the actions of others and allows joint actions despite sensorimotor delays. We explore how this system performs a projection of the self onto others, with egocentric biases to contribute to mind-reading. Finally, we argue that Hebbian learning predicts mirror-like neurons for sensations and emotions and review evidence for the presence of such vicarious activations outside the motor system.
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Perceiving others in pain generally leads to empathic concern, consisting of both emotional and cognitive processes. Empathy deficits have been considered as an element contributing to social difficulties in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and short video clips of facial expressions of people experiencing pain to examine the neural substrates underlying the spontaneous empathic response to pain in autism. Thirty-eight adolescents and adults of normal intelligence diagnosed with ASD and 35 matched controls participated in the study. In contrast to general assumptions, we found no significant differences in brain activation between ASD individuals and controls during the perception of pain experienced by others. Both groups showed similar levels of activation in areas associated with pain sharing, evidencing the presence of emotional empathy and emotional contagion in participants with autism as well as in controls. Differences between groups could be observed at a more liberal statistical threshold, and revealed increased activations in areas involved in cognitive reappraisal in ASD participants compared with controls. Scores of emotional empathy were positively correlated with brain activation in areas involved in embodiment of pain in ASD group only. Our findings show that simulation mechanisms involved in emotional empathy are preserved in high-functioning individuals with autism, and suggest that increased reappraisal may have a role in their apparent lack of caring behavior.
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Background: Constructivist theories propose that articulatory hypotheses about incoming phonetic targets may function to enhance perception by limiting the possibilities for sensory analysis. To provide evidence for this proposal, it is necessary to map ongoing, high-temporal resolution changes in sensorimotor activity (i.e., the sensorimotor μ rhythm) to accurate speech and non-speech discrimination performance (i.e., correct trials.). Methods: Sixteen participants (15 female and 1 male) were asked to passively listen to or actively identify speech and tone-sweeps in a two-force choice discrimination task while the electroencephalograph (EEG) was recorded from 32 channels. The stimuli were presented at signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs) in which discrimination accuracy was high (i.e., 80-100%) and low SNRs producing discrimination performance at chance. EEG data were decomposed using independent component analysis and clustered across participants using principle component methods in EEGLAB. Results: ICA revealed left and right sensorimotor µ components for 14/16 and 13/16 participants respectively that were identified on the basis of scalp topography, spectral peaks, and localization to the precentral and postcentral gyri. Time-frequency analysis of left and right lateralized µ component clusters revealed significant (pFDR<.05) suppression in the traditional beta frequency range (13-30 Hz) prior to, during, and following syllable discrimination trials. No significant differences from baseline were found for passive tasks. Tone conditions produced right µ beta suppression following stimulus onset only. For the left µ, significant differences in the magnitude of beta suppression were found for correct speech discrimination trials relative to chance trials following stimulus offset. Conclusions: Findings are consistent with constructivist, internal model theories proposing that early forward motor models generate predictions about likely phonemic units that are then synthesized with incoming sensory cues during active as opposed to passive processing. Future directions and possible translational value for clinical populations in which sensorimotor integration may play a functional role are discussed.
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This chapter examines the role of self-regulation—especially as reflected in effortful control which has been linked to neurological functioning—in empathy-related responding. Developmental psychologists have identified self-regulatory processes such as planning, the inhibition of behavior, activation of behavior, voluntary control of the allocation of attention, and integration of information such that one can detect errors. After briefly discussing some definitional and conceptual issues, the chapter reviews the results of studies that investigated pain and its regulation as well as sympathy and personal distress. It also explains how attachment and parenting affect the development of empathy and self-regulation in children.
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Social mirroring has been proposed to be an automatic process whereby an observer understands the intentions of others by using his/her motor system to simulate others' actions. Automaticity implies that if the observer's eyes are fixed on another person, the observer's mirror system will engage whether attention is focused on the other person or not. This proposal has not been fully tested, however. The current study therefore addressed whether μ-suppression, an electroencephalographic measure of putative mirror neuron activity, induced by observing the actions of others would be affected by attentional distraction. Participants performed two different distraction tasks while watching a video of a hand repeatedly touching the forefinger and thumb together. μ-suppression was compared across three different blocks: (1) video with no distraction, (2) video with mental imagery distraction and (3) video with word generation distraction. While the no distraction condition yielded the typical level of μ-suppression, the word generation distraction task eliminated any evidence of μ-suppression suggesting that simply fixating the eyes on an action without focusing attention is insufficient to induce μ-suppression. A secondary goal of the current experiment was to replicate correlational findings between μ-suppression and empathic perspective-taking. A counterintuitive, negative relationship between μ-suppression and perspective-taking was replicated, and a theoretical model for explaining this relationship is offered.
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Empathy deficits feature prominently in theoretical accounts of psychopathy, yet studies that have examined various aspects of emotional processing related to empathy have produced a mixed body of findings. We created a laboratory measure of cognitive empathy based on the empathic accuracy paradigm (i.e., the ability to accurately infer others' emotions in a simulated interpersonal interaction) and used it to examine relationships between psychopathy (assessed with the Psychopathy Checklist - Revised) and cognitive empathy in a sample of incarcerated male offenders. Psychopathy was inversely associated with empathic accuracy performance, as well as with the number of responses when rating the emotional states of others. Empathic accuracy performance was most strongly associated with the behavioral/antisocial and lifestyle features of psychopathy. When the emotional content of target vignettes was examined, psychopathy was associated with poorer empathic accuracy for negatively valenced emotions only (fear and sadness), although nonsignificant moderate effect sizes were also observed for joy. Whereas the interpersonal/affective factor of psychopathy was associated with poor empathic accuracy for joy, the behavioral/antisocial factor was associated with poor overall empathic accuracy for negatively valenced emotions. At the psychopathy facet level, the interpersonal and lifestyle features of psychopathy were associated with poor empathic accuracy for positively valenced emotions, whereas the affective and antisocial features of psychopathy were inversely associated with empathic accuracy for negatively valenced emotions. In contrast to its association with poor empathic accuracy performance, psychopathy was not associated with ratings of perceived task difficulty. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved).
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Although empathic accuracy is considered a stable skill, few individual difference measures consistently predict performance on Ickes’ (e.g., 2001) empathic accuracy measure. Because past work has shown that women are more empathically accurate than men when female gender roles are made salient before an empathic accuracy task, we hypothesized that self-reported communion and related variables might predict empathic accuracy. Participants (194 undergraduates) from a northwestern U.S. university completed an empathic accuracy task and self-report measures of communion and empathy. Communion and empathic concern predicted greater empathic accuracy, but only after controlling for socially desirable responding. The role of communion in empathic inference is discussed, along with the need to include measures of social desirability when examining correlates of empathic accuracy.
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Empathy is a multi-faceted concept consisting of our ability not only to share emotions but also to exert cognitive control and perspective taking in our interactions with others. Here we examined whether inter-individual variability in different components of empathy was related to differences in brain structure assessed using voxel-based morphometry. Following a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, participants completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). Multiple regression was then used to assess the relationship between individual differences in grey matter volume and individual differences in empathy traits. We found that individual differences in affective empathic abilities oriented towards another person were negatively correlated with grey matter volume in the precuneus, inferior frontal gyrus, and anterior cingulate. Differences in self-oriented affective empathy were negatively correlated with grey matter volume of the somatosensory cortex, but positively correlated with volume in the insula; cognitive perspective taking abilities were positively correlated with grey matter volume of the anterior cingulate; and the ability to empathise with fictional characters was positively related to grey matter changes in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These findings are discussed in relation to neurocognitive models of empathy.
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The processing of emotional expressions is fundamental for normal socialisation and interaction. Reduced responsiveness to the expressions of sadness and fear has been implicated in the development of psychopathy (R. J. R. Blair, 1995). The current study investigates the sensitivity of children with psychopathic tendencies to facial expressions. Children with psychopathic tendencies and a comparison group, as defined by the Psychopathy Screening Device (PSD; P. J. Frick & R. D. Hare, in press), were presented with a cinematic display of a standardised set of facial expressions that depicted sadness, happiness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. Participants observed as these facial expressions slowly evolved through 20 successive frames of increasing intensity. The children with psychopathic tendencies presented with selective impairments; they needed significantly more stages before they could successfully recognise the sad expressions and even when the fearful expressions were at full intensity were significantly more likely to mistake them for another expression. These results are interpreted with reference to an amygdala and empathy impairment explanation of psychopathy.
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Racial prejudice is a pervasive and pernicious form of intergroup bias. However, a mounting number of studies show that recategorization—even into minimal groups—can overcome the typical consequences of racial and other group classifications. We tested the effects of minimal grouping on implicit prejudice and infrahumanization using a paradigm in which race was orthogonal to group membership. This allowed us to examine whether knowledge of group membership overrides obvious category differences. We found that participants infrahumanized and showed implicit bias toward the minimal outgroup, despite the cross-cutting presence of race, and in fact did not show any of the usual implicit racial bias. In addition, event-related potentials (ERPs) showed an early race effect followed by distinct reactions on the basis of group as processing continued. This is evidence that arbitrary social classifications can engender ingroup preference even in the presence of orthogonal, visually salient categorizations.
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In designing an ERP study, researchers must choose how many trials to include, balancing the desire to maximize statistical power and the need to minimize the length of the recording session. Recent studies have attempted to quantify the minimum number of trials needed to obtain reliable measures for a variety of ERP components. However, these studies have largely ignored other variables that affect statistical power in ERP studies, including sample size and effect magnitude. The goal of the present study was to determine whether and how the number of trials, number of participants, and effect magnitude interact to influence statistical power, thus providing a better guide for selecting an appropriate number of trials. We used a Monte Carlo approach to measure the probability of obtaining a statistically significant result when testing for (a) the presence of an ERP effect, (b) within-participant condition differences in an ERP effect, and (c) between-participants group differences in an ERP effect. Each of these issues was examined in the context of the error-related negativity and the lateralized readiness potential. We found that doubling the number of trials recommended by previous studies led to more than a doubling of statistical power under many conditions. Thus, when determining the number of trials that should be included in a given study, researchers must consider the sample size, the anticipated effect magnitude, and the noise level, rather than relying solely on general recommendations about the number of trials needed to obtain a “stable” ERP waveform.
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Recent research on empathy in humans and other mammals seeks to dissociate emotional and cognitive empathy. These forms, however, remain interconnected in evolution, across species and at the level of neural mechanisms. New data have facilitated the development of empathy models such as the perception-action model (PAM) and mirror-neuron theories. According to the PAM, the emotional states of others are understood through personal, embodied representations that allow empathy and accuracy to increase based on the observer's past experiences. In this Review, we discuss the latest evidence from studies carried out across a wide range of species, including studies on yawn contagion, consolation, aid-giving and contagious physiological affect, and we summarize neuroscientific data on representations related to another's state.
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The aim of the present study was to examine the mechanisms of empathy for pain that contribute to consoling touch, a distress-alleviating contact behavior carried out by an observer in response to the suffering of a target. We tested romantic couples in a paradigm that involves consoling touch and examined the attenuation of the mu/alpha rhythm (8–13 Hz) in the consoling partner. During the task, the toucher either held the consoled partner's right hand (human touch) or held onto the armrest of the chair (non-human touch), while the consoled partner experienced inflicted pain (pain condition) or did not experience any pain (no-pain condition). In accordance with our hypotheses, the results revealed an interaction between touch and pain at in mu/alpha rhythms in all central sites (C3, C4, Cz). Specifically, we found that the toucher's mu suppression was higher in the consoling touch condition, i.e., while touching the partner who is in pain, compared to the three control conditions. Additionally, we found that in the consoling touch condition, mu suppression at electrode C4 of the toucher correlated with a measure of situational empathy. Our findings suggest that electrophysiological and behavioral measures that have been associated with empathy for pain are modulated during consoling touch.
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Theories of neuroaesthetics assume, that looking at traces of actions used in creating artwork (e.g. brush marks) is associated with a simulation of these actions in the observer's sensorimotor-cortex. The aim of the current study is to dissociate the activation of the sensorimotor-cortex by the observation of action traces from associated visual processes. Twenty-eight participants observed handmade graphics (acrylic paint on paper) of different complexity (line, triangle, shape of a house) and computer-generated counterparts. Central mu-activity, as an index of sensorimotor-cortex activity, and occipital alpha-activity, as an index of visual cortex activity were recorded in the 8-13Hz EEG-band. In line with the hypothesis, mu-activity at electrode C4 is sensitive for the complexity of handmade (p=.001), but not computer-generated graphics (p >.500). In contrast, occipital alpha-activity is sensitive for the complexity of both handmade and computer-generated graphics (p <.001). Furthermore, the more empathic the participants rated themselves, the stronger mu-suppression was induced by handmade graphics compared to computer-generated graphics (electrode C4; r=-.612, p=.001). These results support the involvement of the sensorimotor-cortex in the recognition of action traces and strengthen evidence that individuals scoring high in emotional empathy feature a particularly responsive mirror neuron system.
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A fundamental issue in cognitive neuroscience is how the brain encodes others' actions and intentions. In recent years, a potential advance in our knowledge on this issue is the discovery of mirror neurons in the motor cortex of the nonhuman primate. These neurons fire to both execution and observation of specific types of actions. Researchers use this evidence to fuel investigations of a human mirror system, suggesting a common neural code for perceptual and motor processes. Among the methods used for inferring mirror system activity in humans are changes in a particular frequency band in the electroencephalogram (EEG) called the mu rhythm. Mu frequency appears to decrease in amplitude (reflecting cortical activity) during both action execution and action observation. The current meta-analysis reviewed 85 studies (1,707 participants) of mu that infer human mirror system activity. Results demonstrated significant effect sizes for mu during execution (Cohen's d = 0.46, N = 701) as well as observation of action (Cohen's d = 0.31, N = 1,508), confirming a mirroring property in the EEG. A number of moderators were examined to determine the specificity of these effects. We frame these meta-analytic findings within the current discussion about the development and functions of a human mirror system, and conclude that changes in EEG mu activity provide a valid means for the study of human neural mirroring. Suggestions for improving the experimental and methodological approaches in using mu to study the human mirror system are offered. (PsycINFO Database Record
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Differences in the deployment of altruism in human and non-human primate groups raise two different questions in this article. This article considers some of the factors that may limit the extent of cooperation in non-human primate groups. In particular, it focuses on the evidence for the features that are associated with altruistic behaviour in humans: the capacity for empathy, the existence of moral sentiments, and the concern for the welfare of others. The article also defines cooperation as equivalent to the biological definition of altruism, and uses these terms interchangeably. It distinguishes between empathy and sympathy. The definition of empathy corresponds to Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal's concept of 'cognitive empathy'. While one often conflates empathy and sympathy, the two can be uncoupled. Thus, empathy is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for sympathy.
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Impairments in the mirror neuron system (MNS) have been implicated as a possible underlying neurological basis for deficits in higher-level social cognition in schizophrenia. Previous work testing this hypothesis has used the electroencephalographic mu rhythm as an index of MNS activity, with studies showing mixed results. Here we investigated the role that reward plays in modulating the mu rhythm, and its association with empathy and emotional mental state reasoning. A group of schizophrenia patients and a healthy control group completed an action observation paradigm in which they watched actions that were financially rewarding, punishing, or neutral. Patients showed intact reward-related modulation of the mu rhythm, and greater mu suppression was associated with greater negative symptoms. There was also a trend for reduced mu suppression in patients. Furthermore, both empathy and emotional mental state reasoning were associated with the degree of mu suppression, but only in healthy controls. These findings confirm the association between the mu suppression and high-level social cognition. It is possible that schizophrenia patients utilize different cognitive routes to infer mental states. The demonstration that reward influences the degree of mu suppression in schizophrenia patients may help to account for previous conflicting findings in the literature.
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Empathic impairment is one of the hallmarks of psychopathy, a personality dimension associated with poverty in affective reactions, lack of attachment to others, and a callous disregard for the feelings, rights, and welfare of others. Neuroscience research on the relation between empathy and psychopathy has predominately focused on the affective sharing and cognitive components of empathy in forensic populations, and much less on empathic concern. The current study used high-density electroencephalography in a community sample to examine the spatiotemporal neurodynamic responses when viewing people in physical distress under two subjective contexts: one evoking affective sharing, the other, empathic concern. Results indicate that early automatic (175-275 ms) and later controlled responses (LPP 400-1000 ms) were differentially modulated by engagement in affective sharing or empathic concern. Importantly, the late ERP component was significantly impacted by dispositional empathy and psychopathy, but the early component was not. Individual differences in dispositional empathic concern directly predicted gamma coherence (25-40 Hz), whereas psychopathy was inversely modulatory. Interestingly, significant suppression in the mu/alpha band (8-13 Hz) when perceiving others in distress was positively associated with higher trait psychopathy, which argues against the assumption that sensorimotor resonance underpins empathy. Greater scores on trait psychopathy were inversely related to subjective ratings of both empathic concern and affective sharing. Overall, the study demonstrates that neural markers of affective sharing and empathic concern to the same cues of another's distress can be distinguished at an electrophysiological level, and that psychopathy alters later time-locked differentiations and spectral coherence associated with empathic concern. Copyright © 2015, Journal of Neurophysiology.
Article
Why do people tend to care for upholding principles of justice? This study examined the association between individual differences in the affective, motivational and cognitive components of empathy, sensitivity to justice, and psychopathy in participants (N 265) who were also asked to rate the permissibility of everyday moral situations that pit personal benefit against moral standards of justice. Counter to commonsense, emotional empathy was not associated with sensitivity to injustice for others. Rather, individual differences in cognitive empathy and empathic concern predicted sensitivity to justice for others, as well as the endorsement of moral rules. Psychopathy coldheartedness scores were inversely associated with motivation for justice. Moreover, hierarchical multiple linear regression analysis revealed that self-focused and other-focused orientations toward justice had opposing influences on the permissibility of moral judgments. High scores on psychopathy were associated with less moral condemnation of immoral behavior. Together, these results contribute to a better understanding of the information processing mechanisms underlying justice motivation, and may guide interventions designed to foster justice and moral behavior. In order to promote justice motivation, it may be more effective to encourage perspective taking and reasoning to induce concern for others than emphasizing emotional sharing with the misfortune of others.
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Bayesian inference has become a standard method of analysis in many fields of science. Students and researchers in experimental psychology and cognitive science, however, have failed to take full advantage of the new and exciting possibilities that the Bayesian approach affords. Ideal for teaching and self study, this book demonstrates how to do Bayesian modeling. Short, to-the-point chapters offer examples, exercises and computer code (using WinBUGS or JAGS, and supported by Matlab and R), with additional support available online. No advance knowledge of statistics is required and, from the very start, readers are encouraged to apply and adjust Bayesian analyses by themselves. The book contains a series of chapters on parameter estimation and model selection, followed by detailed case studies from cognitive science. After working through this book, readers should be able to build their own Bayesian models, apply the models to their own data and draw their own conclusions.
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Similar cortical activations during the experience and observation of touch suggest the presence of a tactile mirroring system. However, the specificity of observation-related activity - i.e., whether observation excites the same representations as experience of that specific tactile stimulation - is still to be established. Furthermore, central mu rhythms are attenuated during the experience and observation of touch, and also during action observation and execution, making it unclear whether they index processing of predominantly tactile or motor features of observed actions. The present study used an electroencephalography (EEG) cross-modal repetition paradigm to assess the relative tactile and motor specificity of mu attenuation during action observation. Two experiments were carried out during which participants executed and observed actions in alternation, and the repetition of either tactile or motor features of the actions were manipulated. The mu signal over central electrodes varied as a function of tactile repetition, consistent with the claim of a tactile mirroring system and its reflection in the mu signal. Of note was the fact that mu attenuation was sensitive only to manipulation of tactile - not motor - properties of actions, suggesting that caution should be employed when interpreting mu effects during action observation as reflective of motor mirroring.
Article
Empathy features a tension between automaticity and context dependency. On the one hand, people often take on each other's internal states reflexively and outside of awareness. On the other hand, empathy shifts with characteristics of empathizers and situations. These 2 characteristics of empathy can be reconciled by acknowledging the key role of motivation in driving people to avoid or approach engagement with others' emotions. In particular, at least 3 phenomena-suffering, material costs, and interference with competition-motivate people to avoid empathy, and at least 3 phenomena-positive affect, affiliation, and social desirability-motivate them to approach empathy. Would-be empathizers carry out these motives through regulatory strategies including situation selection, attentional modulation, and appraisal, which alter the course of empathic episodes. Interdisciplinary evidence highlights the motivated nature of empathy, and a motivated model holds wide-ranging implications for basic theory, models of psychiatric illness, and intervention efforts to maximize empathy. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved).
Article
Although schizophrenia is associated with impairments in social cognition, the scope and neural correlates of these disturbances are largely unknown. In this study, we investigated whether schizophrenia patients show impaired functioning of the mirror neuron system (MNS), as indexed by electroencephalographic (EEG) mu (8-13 Hz) suppression, a hypothesized biomarker of MNS activity that is sensitive to the degree of social interaction depicted in visual stimuli. A total of 32 outpatients and 26 healthy controls completed an EEG paradigm that included six action observation or execution conditions that differed in their degrees of social interaction. Participants also completed a validated empathy questionnaire. Across both groups, we found a significant linear increase in mu suppression across the conditions involving greater levels of social engagement and interaction, but no significant group or interaction effects. Patients self-reported diminished empathic concern and perspective taking, which showed some moderate relations to mu suppression levels. Thus, the schizophrenia group showed generally intact modulation of MNS functioning at the electrophysiological level, despite self-reporting empathic disturbances. The disturbances commonly seen on self-report, performance, and neuroimaging measures of mentalizing in schizophrenia may largely reflect difficulties with higher-level inferential processes about others' emotions, rather than a basic incapacity to share in these experiences.
Article
Simulation theories argue that humans simulate motor processes of others to gain information about intentions and emotional states of others. Mu-suppression is a valid electrophysiological correlate of these processes. Mu-activity can be measured via electroencephalography (EEG) in the alpha-band (8-13 Hz) above the sensorimotor cortex and is suppressed when actions are executed or observed. Based on a within-subject design, including 28 participants, it was tested whether the processes measured by mu-suppression could be modulated by empathic top-down-processes. Participants were asked to take the perspective of two actors, telling a story about a sad or neutral life event (video sequences). Afterwards, EEG was measured at central (C3, Cz, C4) and occipital (O1, Oz, O2) electrodes, while participants observed the actors drinking water (standardized video sequences, 8 s duration). Fast fourier transformation showed stronger suppression of power in the alpha-range (relative to baseline) at central and occipital electrodes while the actor with the sad story was observed relative to the actor with the neutral story. Furthermore, measures of state empathy correlated positively with the difference of mu-suppression between executed and observed movements, an indicator of self-other discrimination. Thus, mirror neuron activity measured by mu-suppression is modulated by empathic processes.
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Two studies of college students investigated the conditions under which women perform better than men on an empathic accuracy task (inferring the thoughts and feelings of a target person). The first study demonstrated that women’s advantage held only when women were given a task assessing their feelings of sympathy toward the target prior to performing the empathic accuracy task. The second study demonstrated that payments in exchange for accuracy improved the performance of both men and women and wiped out any difference between men’s and women’s performances. Together, the results suggest that gender differences in empathic accuracy performance are the result of motivational differences and are not due to simple differences of ability between men and women.
Article
My initial scope will be limited: starting from a neurobiological standpoint, I will analyse how actions are possibly represented and understood. The main aim of my arguments will be to show that, far from being exclusively dependent upon mentalistic/linguistic abilities, the capacity for understanding others as intentional agents is deeply grounded in the relational nature of action. Action is relational, and the relation holds both between the agent and the object target of the action (see Gallese, 2000b), as between the agent of the action and his/her observer (see below). Agency constitutes a key issue for the understanding of intersubjectivity and for explaining how individuals can interpret their social world. This account of intersubjectivity, founded on the empirical findings of neuroscientific investigation, will be discussed and put in relation with a classical tenet of phenomenology: empathy. I will provide an 'enlarged' account of empathy that will be defined by means of a new conceptual tool: the shared manifold of intersubjectivity.
Article
Psychologists have long assumed that the motivation for all intentional action, including all action intended to benefit others, is egoistic. People benefit others because, ultimately, to do so benefits themselves. The empathy-altruism hypothesis challenges this assumption. It claims that empathic emotion evokes truly altruistic motivation, motivation with an ultimate goal of benefiting not the self but the person for whom empathy is felt. Logical and psychological distinctions between egoism and altruism are reviewed, providing a conceptual framework for empirical tests for the existence of altruism. Results of empirical tests to date are summarized; these results provide impressive support for the empathy-altruism hypothesis. We conclude that the popular and parsimonious explanation of prosocial motivation in terms of universal egoism must give way to a pluralistic explanation that includes altruism as well as egoism. Implications of such a pluralism are briefly noted, not only for our understanding of prosocial motivation but also for our understanding of human nature and of the emotion-motivation link.
Article
Presents an argument, based on psychological research and inferences about human evolution, for the plausibility of an intrinsic altruistic motive, following which a theoretical model for the development of such a motive is outlined. The central idea of the model is that a person's empathic response to another person's distress, interacting with his cognitive sense of the other person, provides the basis for a motive is outlined. The central idea of the model is that a person's empathic response to another person's distress, interacting with his cognitive sense of the other person, provides the basis for a motive independent of egoistic motivation to help the other person. Empathic distress and 3 steps in the development of a sense of the other are discussed, along with empirical evidence for the approximate ages at which they occur. A theoretical account of the interaction between these effective and cognitive processes is then presented, followed by an attempt to assess the evidence for the theory. (21/2 p ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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The mu rhythm is an electroencephalogram (EEG) signal located at the central region of the brain that is frequently used for studies concerning motor activity. Quite often, the EEG data are contaminated with artifacts and the application of blind source separation (BSS) alone is insufficient to extract the mu rhythm component. We present a new two-stage approach to extract the mu rhythm component. The first stage uses second-order blind identification (SOBI) with stationary wavelet transform (SWT) to automatically remove the artifacts. In the second stage, SOBI is applied again to find the mu rhythm component. Our method is first compared with independent component analysis with discrete wavelet transform (ICA-DWT) as well as SOBI-DWT, ICA-SWT, and regression method for artifact removal using simulated EEG data. The results showed that the regression method is more effective in removing electrooculogram (EOG) artifacts, while SOBI-SWT is more effective in removing electromyogram (EMG) artifacts as compared to the other artifact removal methods. Then, all the methods are compared with the direct application of SOBI in extracting mu rhythm components on simulated and actual EEG data from ten subjects. The results showed that the proposed method of SOBI-SWT artifact removal enhances the extraction of the mu rhythm component.