The neurophysiological basis of compassion: An fMRI meta-analysis of compassion and its related neural processes

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Jan:108:112-123. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.10.023. Epub 2019 Nov 4.


Theoretical and neurophysiological investigations into compassion are burgeoning, yet the putative neural mechanisms which underpin such processes are less well understood. Therefore, we have conducted an Activation-Likelihood Estimate meta-analysis in order to ascertain the shared neural processes consistently identified as relevant to compassion. Our analysis of sixteen fMRI studies revealed activation across seven broad regions, with the largest peaks localized to the Periaqueductal Grey, Anterior Insula, Anterior Cingulate, and Inferior Frontal Gyrus. Overall, we identified a tendency for studies to operationalize compassion in one of three ways, as driven either 'top-down', 'bottom-up', or modified by target context. We failed to identify regions purportedly common to compassion such as the DLPFC, OFC, and Amygdala, possibly due to a small number of studies which used Loving-Kindness meditation. We argue future research in compassion science continue a multi-modal approach to examine links between neural activity and actual prosocial behavior, and recommend the application of fMRI paradigms on compassion with clinically diagnosed populations to parallel current trends in psychotherapy such as Compassion Focused Therapy.

Keywords: Basal-ganglia; Compassion; PAG; Review; Salience; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Basal Ganglia / diagnostic imaging
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Functional Neuroimaging*
  • Humans
  • Periaqueductal Gray / diagnostic imaging
  • Periaqueductal Gray / physiology*
  • Social Cognition*