Several studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that empathic capabilities are associated with the activation (and deactivation) of relatively specific neural circuits. A growing number of electroencephalography studies also suggest that it might be useful to assess empathy. The main goal of this study was to use quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG) to test whether observation of pain expressed by an avatar (virtual reality) induces a suppression of alpha waves over sensorimotor cortical areas, as it is observed with human stimuli. Not only was it the case, but also the magnitude of alpha suppression was correlated with perspective-taking capacity of participants. Both empathy levels and magnitude of sensorimotor alpha suppression (SAS) were significantly higher in women than men. Interestingly, a significant interaction emerged between levels of individual empathy and specificity of experimental instructions, where SAS in participants with good perspective-taking was higher during passive observation of the distressed avatar, while the opposite was true during an active (trying to understand) condition. These results suggest that: (1) synthetic characters are able to elicit SAS; (2) SAS is indeed associated with perspective-taking capacities; (3) Persons with poorer perspective-taking capacities can show significant SAS when proper instructions are provided. Therefore, qEEG represents a low-cost objective approach to measure perspective-taking abilities.
Keywords: alpha suppression; assessment; avatar; electroencephalography; empathy; perspective taking; qEEG.