Domain-general and domain-preferential neural correlates underlying empathy towards physical pain, emotional situation and emotional faces: An ALE meta-analysis

Neuropsychologia. 2020 Feb 3;137:107286. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2019.107286. Epub 2019 Nov 28.


Empathy is essential for social interactions and individual development. Through the empathy field, the domain could be divided into three subgroups according to the stimulus materials adopted in tasks: empathy towards physical pain (PhyE), empathy towards emotional situations (ESuE) and towards emotional faces (ExpE). By far, no empirical studies directly compared the neural correlates underlying three sub-domains. The current study, therefore, utilized ALE meta-analysis to identify the general and distinct neural correlates underlying three sub-domains of empathy. The results revealed the conjunction in bilateral supplementary motor areas which were generally activated across three sub-domains. Preferential correlates for PhyE were found in bilateral IPL, left middle cingulate cortex and left anterior insula, which were associated with pain, action and somatosensory functions. Left middle temporal gyrus was found to be preferentially engaged for ESuE. And the preferential activations for ExpE were identified in right amygdala and right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, the regions of which were statistically associated with functional Neurosynth terms "facial expression", "face", "emotion" and "social". Through the current meta-analyses, we firstly indicated that the domain-general and domain-preferential neural correlates potentially exist to underlie the processing of empathy evoked by different types of stimuli.

Keywords: Emotional faces; Emotional situation; Empathy; Facial expressions; Physical pain.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Social Perception*