Who caused the pain? An fMRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children

Neuropsychologia. 2008 Sep;46(11):2607-14. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.05.026. Epub 2008 Jun 3.


When we attend to other people in pain, the neural circuits underpinning the processing of first-hand experience of pain are activated in the observer. 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 others' distress. However, the full-blown capacity of human empathy is more sophisticated than the mere simulation of the target's affective state. Indeed, empathy is about both sharing and understanding the emotional state of others in relation to oneself. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 17 typically developing children (range 7-12 yr) were scanned while presented with short animated visual stimuli depicting painful and non-painful situations. These situations involved either a person whose pain was accidentally caused or a person whose pain was intentionally inflicted by another individual. After scanning, children rated how painful these situations appeared. Consistent with previous fMRI studies of pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people in pain in children was associated with increased hemodynamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of first-hand experience of pain, including the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcingulate cortex, periaqueductal gray, and supplementary motor area. Interestingly, when watching another person inflicting pain onto another, regions that are consistently engaged in representing social interaction and moral behavior (the temporo-parietal junction, the paracingulate, orbital medial frontal cortices, amygdala) were additionally recruited, and increased their connectivity with the fronto-parietal attention network. These results are important to set the standard for future studies with children who exhibit social cognitive disorders (e.g., antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder) and are often deficient in experiencing empathy or guilt.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / blood supply*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Child
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Intention*
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods


  • Oxygen