Disturbances of spontaneous empathic processing relate with the severity of the negative symptoms in patients with schizophrenia: a behavioural pilot-study using virtual reality technology

Brain Cogn. 2014 Oct;90:87-99. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2014.06.006. Epub 2014 Jul 9.


Behavioural and neuroimaging data have recently pointed out that empathy (feeling into someone else) is associated with mental imagery and transformation related to one's and other's visuo-spatial perspectives. Impairments of both empathic and visuo-spatial abilities have been observed in patients with schizophrenia. Especially, it has been suggested that schizophrenics are altered in spontaneously simulating another individual's first-person experience. However, there is so far only little evidence regarding the relationship between deficits in empathy and disturbances in spontaneous heterocentered coding in schizophrenia. In the present pilot-study, we tested with schizophrenic patients our behavioural paradigm that enables to measure from the bodily postures and movements whether individuals in ecologically more valid conditions are interacting with another individual by using egocentered - as in sympathy (feeling with someone else) - or heterocentered - as in empathy - visuo-spatial mechanisms. For that, ten patients and ten controls, standing and moving, interacted with a virtual tightrope walker, displayed life-sized, standing and moving as well. We show that patients with higher negative symptoms had, in most cases, deficits in spontaneously using heterocentered visuo-spatial mechanisms and employed preferentially an egocentered referencing to interact with the avatar. In contrast, preserved spontaneous heterocentered visuo-spatial strategies were not linked to a prevailing negative or positive symptomatology. Our data suggest that the severity of the negative symptoms in schizophrenia relates with disturbances of spontaneous ("on-line") empathic processing in association with lower scoring self-reported trait cognitive empathy.

Keywords: Empathy; Executive functions; Inhibitory processing; Negative symptoms; Schizophrenia; Sympathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pilot Projects
  • Schizophrenic Psychology*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Social Behavior*
  • User-Computer Interface*
  • Young Adult