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


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
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    • "A third important contribution of our research is to consider ostracism from both the perspective of the target and from the perspective of an observer. There is increasing evidence that observers recognize and indeed feel what targets of ostracism experience (Beeney, Franklin, Levy, & Adams, 2011; Masten, Morelli, & Eisenberger, 2011; Wesselmann, Bagg, & Williams, 2009). Moreover, fMRI studies corroborate these self-reported results, showing that observing ostracism activates similar brain regions as directly experiencing ostracism (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004), especially when people observe friends rather than strangers (Meyer et al., 2013). "
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    ABSTRACT: Ostracism has been shown to elicit pain in both the target and the observers. Two experiments investigated the autonomic thermal signature associated with an ostracism experience and assessed whether and how social categorization impacts the autonomic arousal of both the target and the observer. Autonomic response was assessed using thermal infrared imaging, recording facial temperature variation during an online game of ball toss (i.e., Cyberball). Social categorization was manipulated using a minimal group paradigm. The results show a more intense autonomic response during ostracism (vs. inclusion), marked by an increase in facial temperature in the nose and the perioral area. This autonomic response is stronger when individuals are ostracized by ingroup (vs. outgroup) members. Similar pattern of temperature variations emerge when individuals observe an ostracism episode involving ingroup members. Our findings advance the understanding of psycho-physiological mechanisms underlying the ostracism experience and emphasize the impact of social categorization in such mechanisms.
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    • "Of course, empathy and mentalizing processes may co-occur in many experimental depictions of social situations. For instance, when manipulating empathic requirements by means of observed social exclusion, participants likely also take the (cognitive) perspective of the displayed agents, which is reflected in concurrent activation of both empathy-and Theory of Mind-related networks (Masten et al. 2011). Critically, because the two processes are not manipulated independently, clear-cut attribution of empathy and mentalizing functions to the specific neural activations are impossible. "
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    ABSTRACT: Most instances of social interaction provide a wealth of information about the states of other people, be it sensations, feelings, thoughts, or convictions. How we represent these states has been a major question in social neuroscience, leading to the identification of two routes to understanding others: an affective route for the direct sharing of others' emotions (empathy) that involves, among others, anterior insula and middle anterior cingulate cortex and a cognitive route for representing and reasoning about others' states (Theory of Mind) that entails, among others, ventral temporoparietal junction and anterior and posterior midline regions. Additionally, research has revealed a number of situational and personal factors that shape the functioning of empathy and Theory of Mind. Concerning situational modulators, it has been shown, for instance, that ingroup membership enhances empathic responding and that Theory of Mind performance seems to be susceptible to stress. Personal modulators include psychopathological conditions, for which alterations in empathy and mentalizing have consistently been demonstrated; people on the autism spectrum, for instance, are impaired specifically in mentalizing, while spontaneous empathic responding seems selectively reduced in psychopathy. Given the multifaceted evidence for separability of the two routes, current research endeavors aiming at fostering interpersonal cooperation explore the differential malleability of affective and cognitive understanding of others.
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    • "The vicarious experience of embarrassment is associated with neural activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the anterior insula (AI) and, if induced strong 5 enough, higher-order somatosensory cortex areas (Paulus et al., 2015). This network of brain regions is also linked to the experience of vicarious physical pain (De Vignemont and Singer, 2006; Lamm et al., 2011) and other forms of vicarious social pain (Immordino-Yang et al., 2009; Masten et al., 2011). These neural 10 pathways are also fundamentally involved in the first-hand experiences of social and physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003; Kross et al., 2011; Wager et al., 2013; Mü ller-Pinzler et al., 2015), supporting the notion that activity of the AI and ACC network represents consciously accessible bodily affect in shared circuits 15 (Keysers and Gazzola, 2006) that can then somehow be articulated in the course of social interactions (Hein et al., 2010). "
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    ABSTRACT: Social closeness is a potent moderator of vicarious affect and specifically vicarious embarrassment. The neural pathways of how social closeness to another person affects our experience of vicarious embarrassment for the other’s public flaws, failures and norm violations are yet unknown. To bridge this gap, we examined the neural response of participants while witnessing threats to either a friend’s or a stranger’s social integrity. The results show consistent responses of the anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), shared circuits of the aversive quality of affect, as well as the medial prefrontal cortex and temporal pole, central structures of the mentalizing network. However, the ACC/AI network activation was increased during vicarious embarrassment in response to a friend’s failures. At the same time, the precuneus, a brain region associated with self-related thoughts, showed a specific activation and an increase in functional connectivity with the shared circuits in the frontal lobe while observing friends. This might indicate a neural systems mechanism for greater affective sharing and self-involvement while people interact with close others that are relevant to oneself.
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