Dissecting the social brain: Introducing the EmpaToM to reveal distinct neural networks and brain-behavior relations for empathy and Theory of Mind

Neuroimage. 2015 Nov 15;122:6-19. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.082. Epub 2015 Aug 5.


Successful social interactions require both affect sharing (empathy) and understanding others' mental states (Theory of Mind, ToM). As these two functions have mostly been investigated in isolation, the specificity of the underlying neural networks and the relation of these networks to the respective behavioral indices could not be tested. Here, we present a novel fMRI paradigm (EmpaToM) that independently manipulates both empathy and ToM. Experiments 1a/b (N=90) validated the task with established empathy and ToM paradigms on a behavioral and neural level. Experiment 2 (N=178) employed the EmpaToM and revealed clearly separable neural networks including anterior insula for empathy and ventral temporoparietal junction for ToM. These distinct networks could be replicated in task-free resting state functional connectivity. Importantly, brain activity in these two networks specifically predicted the respective behavioral indices, that is, inter-individual differences in ToM related brain activity predicted inter-individual differences in ToM performance, but not empathic responding, and vice versa. Taken together, the validated EmpaToM allows separation of affective and cognitive routes to understanding others. It may thus benefit future clinical, developmental, and intervention studies on identifying selective impairments and improvement in specific components of social cognition.

Keywords: Empathy; Mentalizing; Resting state functional connectivity; Social cognition; Theory of mind; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*