A developmental perspective on the neural bases of human empathy

Infant Behav Dev. 2017 Aug;48(Pt A):5-12. doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2015.11.006. Epub 2016 Mar 17.


While empathy has been widely studied in philosophical and psychological literatures, recent advances in social neuroscience have shed light on the neural correlates of this complex interpersonal phenomenon. In this review, we provide an overview of brain imaging studies that have investigated the neural substrates of human empathy. Based on existing models of the functional architecture of empathy, we review evidence of the neural underpinnings of each main component, as well as their development from infancy. Although early precursors of affective sharing and self-other distinction appear to be present from birth, recent findings also suggest that even higher-order components of empathy such as perspective-taking and emotion regulation demonstrate signs of development during infancy. This merging of developmental and social neuroscience literature thus supports the view that ontogenic development of empathy is rooted in early infancy, well before the emergence of verbal abilities. With age, the refinement of top-down mechanisms may foster more appropriate empathic responses, thus promoting greater altruistic motivation and prosocial behaviors.

Keywords: Affective sharing; Development; Empathy; Infancy; Neural correlates; Perspective-taking.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant