The Neural Components of Empathy

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´╗┐The Neural Components of Empathy


Our results suggest that there are several neurocognitive components involved in different aspects of empathy. First, limbic regions like dACC, AI and VMPFC are involved in affective congruence, supporting an emotional state that complements that of the target. Second, the mirror and mentalizing systems represent two pathways to sharing others' emotions and are differentially engaged depending on the amount of context that is provided to understand another's emotional experience. Finally, septal area appears to play a role in generating prosocial motivation during empathy more generally. In particular, the septal area may produce an other-focused, caregiving state of mind that motivates prosocial behavior.

Overall, these results shed new light on past empathy research and add to an increasingly comprehensive neural model for empathy. The current findings suggest that the target's specific emotions will stimulate congruent emotions in the observer, such as negative affect when experiencing empathy for negative emotions and positive affect when experiencing empathy for positive emotions. In addition, empathy may be induced by simply observing others' emotional experiences, but at other times it may be necessary to actively take the target's perspective in order to understand and connect with their emotions. Finally, empathy heightens our focus on and concern for others, regardless of what specific emotion the target is experiencing, and motivates us to behave prosocially.

However, it is still unclear how these different components of empathy interact and unfold in real-time (Zaki and Ochsner, 2012). For example, it may be that prosocial motivation heightens the affective response to the target or that the affective response to the target bolsters prosocial motivation. It is also unclear whether the mirror system and affective regions are activated simultaneously or sequentially. Furthermore, current theories about empathy might suggest that the mentalizing system should typically precede affective congruence when empathizing with context-dependent emotions. Thus, future studies will be able to explore these questions by examining the temporal sequencing of activation in neural regions associated with affective congruence (e.g. dACC, insula, VMPFC), mirroring or mentalizing (i.e. mirror system and mentalizing system), and prosocial motivation (i.e. septal area).

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