The neural basis of empathy

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2012;35:1-23. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-062111-150536.

Abstract

Empathy--the ability to share the feelings of others--is fundamental to our emotional and social lives. Previous human imaging studies focusing on empathy for others' pain have consistently shown activations in regions also involved in the direct pain experience, particularly anterior insula and anterior and midcingulate cortex. These findings suggest that empathy is, in part, based on shared representations for firsthand and vicarious experiences of affective states. Empathic responses are not static but can be modulated by person characteristics, such as degree of alexithymia. It has also been shown that contextual appraisal, including perceived fairness or group membership of others, may modulate empathic neuronal activations. Empathy often involves coactivations in further networks associated with social cognition, depending on the specific situation and information available in the environment. Empathy-related insular and cingulate activity may reflect domain-general computations representing and predicting feeling states in self and others, likely guiding adaptive homeostatic responses and goal-directed behavior in dynamic social contexts.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Brain Mapping / psychology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Pain / psychology
  • Social Behavior