Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Jun;9(6):873-9. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst060. Epub 2013 Apr 10.


Although empathy is crucial for successful social interactions, excessive sharing of others' negative emotions may be maladaptive and constitute a source of burnout. To investigate functional neural plasticity underlying the augmentation of empathy and to test the counteracting potential of compassion, one group of participants was first trained in empathic resonance and subsequently in compassion. In response to videos depicting human suffering, empathy training, but not memory training (control group), increased negative affect and brain activations in anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex-brain regions previously associated with empathy for pain. In contrast, subsequent compassion training could reverse the increase in negative effect and, in contrast, augment self-reports of positive affect. In addition, compassion training increased activations in a non-overlapping brain network spanning ventral striatum, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex. We conclude that training compassion may reflect a new coping strategy to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience.

Keywords: emotion; fMRI; insula; medial orbitofrontal cortex; social.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Self Report
  • Social Perception*
  • Video Recording
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult