Putting together phylogenetic and ontogenetic perspectives on empathy

Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2012 Jan;2(1):1-24. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2011.05.003. Epub 2011 May 23.


The ontogeny of human empathy is better understood with reference to the evolutionary history of the social brain. Empathy has deep evolutionary, biochemical, and neurological underpinnings. Even the most advanced forms of empathy in humans are built on more basic forms and remain connected to core mechanisms associated with affective communication, social attachment, and parental care. In this paper, we argue that it is essential to consider empathy within a neurodevelopmental framework that recognizes both the continuities and changes in socioemotional understanding from infancy to adulthood. We bring together neuroevolutionary and developmental perspectives on the information processing and neural mechanisms underlying empathy and caring, and show that they are grounded in multiple interacting systems and processes. Moreover, empathy in humans is assisted by other abstract and domain-general high-level cognitive abilities such as executive functions, mentalizing and language, as well as the ability to differentiate another's mental states from one's own, which expand the range of behaviors that can be driven by empathy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology
  • Altruism
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Empathy / genetics
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Human Development / physiology
  • Humans
  • Object Attachment
  • Oxytocin / physiology
  • Parenting
  • Self Concept
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Social Perception*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology


  • Oxytocin