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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.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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....

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.