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Neuroscience of empathy

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The neuroscience of empathy is the study of the biological basis of empathy. It s an aspect of both affective neuroscience and social neuroscience.

fMRI studiesEdit

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been employed to investigate the functional anatomy of empathy.[1][2] These studies have shown that observing another person's emotional state activates parts of the neuronal network involved in processing that same state in oneself, whether it is disgust,[3] touch,[4][5] or pain.[6][7][8][9] The study of the neural underpinnings of empathy has received increased interest following the target paper published by Preston and Frans de Waal,[10] following the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another perform an action as well as when they themselves perform it. In their paper, they argued that attended perception of the object's state automatically activates neural representations, and that this activation automatically primes or generates the associated autonomic and somatic responses, unless inhibited. This mechanism is similar to the common coding theory between perception and action.


In Bower (2005) the function of these mirror cells was further investigated. They may be related to awareness of the goal-directedness of actions. These neurons "may be responsible for understanding the intention of action in other people," Kiyoshi Nakahara and Yasushi Miyashita, both of the University of Tokyo School of Medicine said in a note which accompanies the Bower action.

Dapretto et al. (2006) found that, as opposed to normally developing children, high-functioning children with autism showed no mirror neuron activity in the brain's inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis) while imitating and observing emotional expressions. The authors suggest this supports the hypothesis that a dysfunctional mirror neuron system may underlie the social deficits observed in autism.

Components of circuitry involved in empathy may also be dysfunctional in psychopathy (Tunstall N., Fahy T. and McGuire P. in: Guide to Neuroimaging in Psychiatry, Eds. Fu C et al, Martin Dunitz: London 2003).


See alsoEdit


ReferencesEdit

  1. Keysers, C. & Gazzola, V. (2009). Expanding the mirror: vicarious activity for actions, emotions and sensations. Curr Opinion Neurobiol, 2009
  2. 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.
  3. Wicker, B. et al. (2003). Both of us disgusted in my insula: the common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. Neuron, 40, 655-664.
  4. Keysers, C. et al. (2004). A touching sight: SII/PV activation during the observation and experience of touch, Neuron, 42:335-46
  5. Blakemore, S.-J., et al. (2005). Somatosensory activations during the observation of touch and a case of vision-touch synaesthesia. Brain, 128, 1571-1583.
  6. Morrison, I., Lloyd, D., di Pellegrino, G., & Roberts, N. (2004). Vicarious responses to pain in anterior cingulate cortex: is empathy a multisensory issue? Cognitive & Affective Behavioral Neuroscience, 4, 270-278.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Singer, T., et al. (2004). Empathy for pain involves the affective but not the sensory components of pain. Science, 303, 1157-1161.
  10. Preston, S., & de Waal, F. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 1-72.

Further readingEdit

  • Batson, C.D. (2009). These things called empathy: eight related but distinct phenomena. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (pp. 3-15). Cambridge: MIT press.

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