From emotion resonance to empathic understanding: a social developmental neuroscience account

Dev Psychopathol. Fall 2008;20(4):1053-80. doi: 10.1017/S0954579408000503.


The psychological construct of empathy refers to an intersubjective induction process by which positive and negative emotions are shared, without losing sight of whose feelings belong to whom. Empathy can lead to personal distress or to empathic concern (sympathy). The goal of this paper is to address the underlying cognitive processes and their neural underpinnings that constitute empathy within a developmental neuroscience perspective. In addition, we focus on how these processes go awry in developmental disorders marked by impairments in social cognition, such as autism spectrum disorder, and conduct disorder. We argue that empathy involves both bottom-up and top-down information processing, underpinned by specific and interacting neural systems. We discuss data from developmental psychology as well as cognitive neuroscience in support of such a model, and highlight the impact of neural dysfunctions on social cognitive developmental behavior. Altogether, bridging developmental science and cognitive neuroscience helps approach a more complete understanding of social cognition. Synthesizing these two domains also contributes to a better characterization of developmental psychopathologies that impacts the development of effective treatment strategies.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Awareness
  • Child
  • Child Development / physiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Developmental Disabilities / therapy
  • Emotions*
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Motivation
  • Neurosciences / methods
  • Neurosciences / trends
  • Psychology, Child
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Perception