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Scanning for Empathy

Credit: Sangoiri

Credit: Sangoiri

By Robert Eres

From the reassuring psychologist to the panicked parent, we experience empathy for others in different ways. Brain scans have revealed why.

Our ability to live as social creatures relies on our capacity to share and understand the feelings and thoughts of others. This is commonly referred to as empathy, and it can occur on three levels (see box):

  • cognitive empathy, where we consciously recognise another person’s perspective;
  • affective empathy, where we relate emotionally to another person’s feelings; and
  • emotional regulation, where we hold our natural feelings in check and provide compassionate support for another person.

Our group at Monash University has found that there are physical changes in the brain according to whichever type of empathy dominates a person’s mindset.

Understanding how and why people are empathic is a difficult task. We can’t just look at how a person behaves empathically because we know that there are inherent biases that come into play. While a person may not physically show empathy towards somebody that they don’t like, we cannot rule out that their brains haven’t responded empathically. Indeed, it is very difficult to show this through behaviour alone.

Hence we need to look inside our heads to the most complex organ in the human body, the brain. The difficulty with studying the brain is that we need special tools and machines to measure its activity, and then we need to infer from this activity how it affects behaviour.

An abundance of research has shown that the brain functions differently for different types of empathy being expressed. What has been less investigated is whether the physical structure of the brain is different for cognitive and affective empathy.

We already know that the brain changes in response to repetitive mental or physical tasks, so we decided to investigate whether functional differences observed in cognitive and affective empathy were underpinned by physical brain differences.

Our results revealed that there are differences between cognitive and affective empathy. Those who were more cognitively empathic had more brain matter in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain associated with understanding people’s mental states. We also found that people who were more affectively, or emotionally, empathic had more brain matter in the insula, an emotion-processing hub of what social neuroscientists call the social brain.

Measuring Empathy

We decided to limit our focus to cognitive and affective empathy. We began by finding a reliable and valid measure of these psychological constructs. It was important to find a measure that could compare each component of empathy, so we administered the Questionnaire for Cognitive and Affective Empathy to each participant to determine their levels of empathy.

Once participants had completed this, we took brain scans of each participant to determine the structure of their brains, including the amount of grey matter. Pairing this information with the questionnaire scores allowed us to make inferences about how much brain matter in one specific area is associated with different levels of empathy.

When we analysed the results we found that higher scores on the affective and cognitive components of the questionnaire were associated with greater grey matter density in the insula and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, respectively.

Conclusion

The recent findings from our lab demonstrate that brain differences in the insula and the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex are associated with how emotionally and cognitively empathic we are. It is difficult to identify, though, whether we are more empathic because we have larger brains or whether we have large brains because we are more empathic.

Regardless, we have shown that those who do express higher levels of empathy also have larger brain areas, and it’s because of these social functions that we are able to navigate our complex and social world fluently alongside other people.

Robert Eres is a PhD candidate in Monash University’s School of Psychological Sciences and the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences.