The neural bases for empathy

Neuroscientist. 2011 Feb;17(1):18-24. doi: 10.1177/1073858410379268. Epub 2010 Nov 11.


Human empathy relies on the ability to share emotions as well as the ability to understand the other's thoughts, desires, and feelings. Recent evidence points to 2 separate systems for empathy: an emotional system that supports our ability to empathize emotionally and a cognitive system that involves cognitive understanding of the other's perspective. Converging evidence from neuroimaging and lesion studies shows that a neural network that includes the inferior frontal gyrus and the inferior parietal lobule is necessary for emotion recognition and emotional contagion. On the other hand, the involvement of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and the medial temporal lobe in self-reflection and autobiographical memory places these key regions as necessary for cognitive empathy. The proposed dissociation between these systems is supported by recent neurochemical experiments involving administration of oxytocin as well as by ethological, psychiatric, and developmental studies. Finally, although the emotional and cognitive systems appear to work independently, every empathic response may still evoke both components to some extent, depending on the social context.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*