Empathic Care and Distress: Predictive Brain Markers and Dissociable Brain Systems

Neuron. 2017 Jun 21;94(6):1263-1273.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.05.014. Epub 2017 Jun 8.

Abstract

Encountering another's suffering can elicit both empathic distress and empathic care-the warm desire to affiliate. It remains unclear whether these two feelings can be accurately and differentially predicted from neural activity and to what extent their neural substrates can be distinguished. We developed fMRI markers predicting moment-by-moment intensity levels of care and distress intensity while participants (n = 66) listened to true biographies describing human suffering. Both markers' predictions correlated strongly with self-report in out-of-sample participants (r = 0.59 and r = 0.63, p < 0.00001), and both markers predicted later trial-by-trial charitable donation amounts (p < 0.05). Empathic care was preferentially associated with nucleus accumbens and medial orbitofrontal cortex activity, whereas distress was preferentially associated with premotor and somatosensory cortical activity. In tests of marker specificity with an independent behavioral sample (n = 200), the empathic care marker was associated with a mixed-valence feeling state, whereas the empathic distress marker was specific to negative emotion.

Keywords: altruism; biomarker; compassion; empathy; prosocial.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Emotions
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motor Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Motor Cortex / physiology
  • Motor Cortex / physiopathology
  • Nucleus Accumbens / diagnostic imaging
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiopathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnostic imaging
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Young Adult