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Jean Decety

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Jean Decety is a neuroscientist and an internationally recognized expert on cognitive neuroscience and social neuroscience. His research focuses on the neurobiological mechanisms underpinning social cognition, particularly empathy, sympathy, emotional self-regulation and more generally interpersonal processes. He is Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago.


Jean Decety obtained two advanced Master degrees in 1985 (neuroscience) and in 1987 (biological and medical engineering sciences) and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1989 (neurobiology) from the Université Claude Bernard. After receiving his doctorate, he worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, in the Departments of Neurophysiology and Neuroradiology. He then joined the National Institute for Medical Research (INSERM) in Lyon, France, until 2001.

Decety is currently professor at the University of Chicago and its College, with appointments in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry. He is the head of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory and co-director of the Brain Research Imaging Center at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Dr. Decety is an executive committee member of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and a member of the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Neuroengineering.

He married Sylvie Bendier and they have two sons (Nathan and Glenn Ariel).

Editorial dutiesEdit

Decety serves as the editor in chief of the journal Social Neuroscience and is on the editorial boards of The ScientificWorldJournal, Frontiers in Emotion Science, and Neuropsychologia. Decety is a member of the faculty advisory committee of the France Chicago Center.

Early research in cognitive neuroscienceEdit

During his Ph.D. training and onwards, Decety combined behavioral, physiological and functional neuroimaging measures to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms involved in mental simulation of action, also known as Mental Practice of Action or motor imagery, a technique used by athletes to rehearse and improve their performance. A series of experiments demonstrated that mental simulation can activate heart and respiration control mechanisms almost to the same extent as actual behavior.[1] Imagining an action or actually performing that action share similar neural circuits, including the premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, cerebellum, parietal cortex and basal ganglia,[2] and these circuits are also activated when one observes, imitates or imagines actions performed by other individuals.[3][4] These findings support the common coding theory between perception and action put forward by Roger Sperry and more recently by German psychologist Wolfgang Prinz. The core assumption of this theory is that actions are coded in terms of the perceivable effects (i.e., the distal perceptual events) they should generate.[5] Performing a movement leaves behind a bidirectional association between the motor pattern it has generated by and the sensory effects that it produces. Such an association can then be used backwards to retrieve a movement by anticipating its effects.[6] Decety and colleagues proposed that this perception–action coupling mechanism offers an interesting foundation for intersubjectivity and social understanding because it provides a functional bridge between first-person information and third-person information, grounded on self-other equivalence,[7][8] which allows analogical reasoning, and offers a possible, yet partial, route to understanding others.[9][10]

Current research on social cognition and moral sensitivityEdit

Later research includes the neurobiological investigation of empathy, sympathy, personal distress, the sense of agency, perspective taking, emotional regulation, and implicit moral reasoning in healthy individuals as well as people with social behavior disorders.[11] In a recent series of functional MRI and magnetoencephalographic studies, Decety and his students have shown that when children or adults watch other people in pain, the neural circuits underpinning the processing of first-hand experience of pain are activated in the observer.[12] This basic somatic sensorimotor resonance plays a critical role in the primitive building block of empathy and moral reasoning that relies on the sharing of other’s distress. Such results are important, because appreciating the brain’s role in responding to the pain of others can help us understand children who exhibit social cognitive disorders (e.g., antisocial personality disorder and conduct disorder) and are often deficient in experiencing empathic concern, sympathy or guilt. Current research in Decety social cognitive neuroscience laboratory explores the neurological mechanisms that underpin the function and dysfunction of empathy and its expression in individuals who vary in psychopathic traits, including incarcerated psychopaths, by combining functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuroanatomy and diffusion tensor imaging, gaze analysis and pupillometry, autonomic nervous system measurements, and behavioral responses.[13]

New area of Decety's research investigates the development of moral reasoning, empathy and empathic concern from early childhood to late adolescence by probing the neural underpinnings of moral sensitivity and delimiting the impact of individual dispositions and social context. This area of investigation combines neuroscience methods such as functional MRI, diffusion tensor imaging, MRI with developmental psychology to examine age-related changes in the computational mechanisms subserving moral sensitivity.[14][15]

Decety has collaborators in several universities in the United States, as well as in Argentina, Colombia, Israel, Japan and Taiwan.

Contribution to empathy researchEdit

For Decety, empathy denotes, at a phenomenological level of description, a sense of similarity between the feelings one experiences and those expressed by others, without losing sight of whose feelings belong to whom.[16] Empathy allows one to quickly and automatically relate to the emotional states of our conspecifics, which is essential for the regulation of social interaction. In theories of moral development, empathy is often considered as a fundamental motivator in eliciting altruism and inhibition of aggression.[17] Deficits or lack of empathy are prominent features of various psychopathologies.[18] Decety model of empathy and its expressions (e.g., sympathy, altruism, empathic concern and moral reasoning) posits that the experience of empathy involves three interacting (yet functionally and neurologically dissociable) components: 1) affective sharing between other and self, mental flexibility, and self-regulation. The two latter components relies on executive functions underpinned by the prefrontal cortex and its connections with the limbic system. His model emphasizes the crucial role of the sense of agency and self-other awareness when appreciating emotions, thoughts and feelings. Without self-other awareness and self-regulatory skills confusion will result from our capacity to share emotional states with others. This will lead to emotional contagion and in some case, personal distress.

The perception of other people in pain has revealed to be of particular importance for Decety investigations of the neural mechanisms underlying empathy.[19] Pain is a window through which one can obtain a detailed view of the cognitive and neurophysiological mechanism underlying the experiences of empathy and sympathy. The perception of pain in others constitutes an ecologically valid way to investigate the mechanisms underpinning the experience of empathy for two main reasons: first, everybody knows what is pain – it is a common and universal experience – and understands what are its physical and psychological manifestations; second, we have good knowledge about the neurophysiological pathways and brain areas that are involved in processing nociceptive information which include the somatosensory cortex, the supplementary motor area, the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, the periaqueductal gray, and thalamus.[20]

A number of neuroimaging functional MRI and magnetoencephalography studies from Decety Laboratory demonstrated that attending to others in pain is associated with an aversive response in the observer, underpinned by the neural circuits involved in somatosensory mirroring and processing nociceptive information.[21][22][23][24][25] This sharing allows mapping the perceived affective cues of others onto the behaviors and experiences of the self. Decety argued that depending on the extent of the overlap in the pain matrix, and complex interactions with personal dispositions, motivation, contextual information, and self-regulation, it can lead to personal distress (i.e., self-centered motivation) or to empathic concern or sympathy (i.e., an other-oriented response). This distinction draws on the work of social psychologist Daniel Batson with whom Decety collaborated.

Selected worksEdit

  • Lamm, C., Meltzoff, A.N., & Decety, J. (2010). How do we empathize with someone who is not like us? Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2, 362-376.
  • Decety, J. (2007). A social cognitive neuroscience model of human empathy. In E. Harmon-Jones & P. Winkielman (Eds.), Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior (pp. 246–270). New York: Guilford Publications.
  • Lamm, C., Batson, C.D., & Decety, J. (2007). The neural substrate of human empathy: effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19, 42-58.
  • Decety, J., & Grezes, J. (2006). The power of simulation: Imagining one's own and other's behavior. Brain Research, 1079, 4-14.
  • Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2007). The role of the right temporoparietal junction in social interaction: How low-level computational processes contribute to meta-cognition. The Neuroscientist, 13, 580-593.
  • Decety, J. (2005). Perspective taking as the royal avenue to empathy. In B.F. Malle, & S. D. Hodges (Eds.), Other Minds: How Humans Bridge the Divide between Self and Others, (pp. 135–149). New York: Guilford Publishers.

Books as an EditorEdit

  • The Oxford Handbook of Social Neuroscience (2011). J. Decety and J.T. Cacioppo (Eds.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (2009). J. Decety and W. Ickes (Eds.). Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Empathy - from Bench to Bedside (2011). J. Decety (Ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity: Entering Others' Worlds (2007). J. Decety and C.D. Batson (Eds.). Hove: Psychology Press.
  • Perception and Action: Recent Advances in Cognitive Neuropsychology (1998). J. Decety (Ed.). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

See alsoEdit


  1. Decety, J. et al. (1993). Central activation of autonomic effectors during mental simulation of motor actions in man. Journal of Physiology, 461, 549-563.
  2. Decety, J. et al. (1994). Mapping motor representations with positron emission tomography. Nature, 371, 600-602.
  3. Decety, J. et al. (1997). Brain activity during observation of actions. Influence of action content and subject’s strategy. Brain, 120, 1763-1777.
  4. Ruby, P., & Decety, J. (2001). Effect of the subjective perspective taking during simulation of action: a PET investigation of agency. Nature Neuroscience, 4, 546-550.
  5. Hommel, B., Müsseler, Aschersleben, G. and Prinz, W. (2001). The theory of event coding (TEC): A framework for perception and action planning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 849-937.
  6. Prinz, W. (2003). Experimental approaches to action. In J. Roessler & N. Eilan (Eds.). Agency and Self-awareness (pp. 175-187). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Decety, J., & Sommerville, J.A. (2003). Shared representations between self and others: A social cognitive neuroscience view. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 527-533.
  8. Jackson, P.L., & Decety, J. (2004). Motor cognition: A new paradigm to investigate social interactions. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 14, 1-5.
  9. Sommerville, J. A., & Decety, J. (2006). Weaving the fabric of social interaction: Articulating developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience in the domain of motor cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13, 179-200.
  10. Blakemore, S., & Decety, J. (2001). From the perception of action to the understanding of intention. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 561-567.
  11. Decety, J., & Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 1, 22-65.
  12. Decety, J. et al. (2008). "Who caused the pain? A functional MRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children." Neuropsychologia, 46, 2607-2614.
  13. Decety, J., Michalska, K.J., Akitsuki, Y., & Lahey, B. (2009). Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: a functional MRI investigation. Biological Psychology, 80, 203-211.
  14. Decety, J., & Michalska, K.J. (2010). Neurodevelopmental changes in the circuits underlying empathy and sympathy from childhood to adulthood. Developmental Science, 13, 886-899.
  15. Decety, J., Michalska, K. J., & Kinzler, K. D. (2011). The contribution of emotion and cognition to moral sensitivity: A neurodevelopmental study. Cerebral Cortex, Epub ahead of print.
  16. Decety, J., & Meyer, M. (2008). From emotion resonance to empathic understanding: A social developmental neuroscience account. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 1053-1080.
  17. Hoffman, M. (2000). Empathy and moral development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  18. Decety, J., & Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 1, 22-65.
  19. Decety, J. (2009). Empathy, sympathy and the perception of pain. Pain, 145, 365-366.
  20. Decety, J. (2007). A social cognitive neuroscience model of human empathy. In E. Harmon-Jones & P. Winkielman (Eds.), Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior (pp. 246-270). New York: Guilford Publications.
  21. Cheng, Y., Lin, C., Liu, H.L., Hsu, Y., Lim, K., Hung, D., & Decety, J. (2007). Expertise modulates the perception of pain in others. Current Biology, 17, 1708-1713.
  22. Jackson, P.L., Brunet, E., Meltzoff, A.N., & Decety, J. (2006). Empathy examined through the neural mechanisms involved in imagining how I feel versus how you feel pain: An event-related fMRI study. Neuropsychologia, 44, 752-61.
  23. Cheng, Y., Yang, C.Y., Lin, C.P., Lee, P.R., & Decety, J. (2008). The perception of pain in others suppresses somatosensory oscillations: a magnetoencephalography study. NeuroImage, 40, 1833-1840.
  24. Jackson, P.L., Meltzoff, A.N., & Decety, J. (2005). How do we perceive the pain of others: A window into the neural processes involved in empathy. NeuroImage, 24, 771-779.
  25. Lamm, C., Nusbaum, H.C., Meltzoff, A.N., & Decety, J. (2007). What are you feeling? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the modulation of sensory and affective responses during empathy for pain. PLoS ONE, 12, e1292.

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