Empathy in hippocampal amnesia

Front Psychol. 2013 Mar 22;4:69. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00069. eCollection 2013.


Empathy is critical to the quality of our relationships with others and plays an important role in life satisfaction and well-being. The scientific investigation of empathy has focused on characterizing its cognitive and neural substrates, and has pointed to the importance of a network of brain regions involved in emotional experience and perspective taking (e.g., ventromedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, anterior insula, cingulate). While the hippocampus has rarely been the focus of empathy research, the hallmark properties of the hippocampal declarative memory system (e.g., representational flexibility, relational binding, on-line processing capacity) make it well-suited to meet some of the crucial demands of empathy, and a careful investigation of this possibility could make a significant contribution to the neuroscientific understanding of empathy. The present study is a preliminary investigation of the role of the hippocampal declarative memory system in empathy. Participants were three patients (1 female) with focal, bilateral hippocampal (HC) damage and severe declarative memory impairments and three healthy demographically matched comparison participants. Empathy was measured as a trait through a battery of gold standard questionnaires and through on-line ratings and prosocial behavior in response to a series of empathy inductions. Patients with hippocampal amnesia reported lower cognitive and emotional trait empathy than healthy comparison participants. Unlike healthy comparison participants, in response to the empathy inductions hippocampal patients reported no increase in empathy ratings or prosocial behavior. The results provide preliminary evidence for a role for hippocampal declarative memory in empathy.

Keywords: declarative memory; empathy; hippocampus; social cognition.