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Decety - 2011.pdf

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Jennifer Gutsell

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ARTICLE Emotion Review Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 2011) 92108 2011 SAGE Publications and The International Society Dissecting the Neural Mechanisms Mediating Empathy for Research on Emotion ISSN 1754-0739 DOI: 10.1177/17540v73910374662 er.sagepub.com Jean Decety Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Chicago, USA Abstract Empathy is thought to play a key role in motivating prosocial behavior, guiding our preferences and behavioral responses, and providing the affective and motivational base for moral development. While these abilities have traditionally been examined using behavioral methods, recent work in evolutionary biology, developmental and cognitive neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural circuitry that instantiate them. The purpose of this article is to critically examine the current knowledge in the field of affective neuroscience and provide an integrative and comprehensive view of the computational mechanisms that underlie empathy. This framework is of general interest and relevance for theory as well as for assisting future research in the domains of affective developmental neuroscience and psychopathology. Keywords affective neuroscience, amygdala, empathy, orbitofrontal cortex, shared neural circuits, sympathy, theory of mind Suppose you are on a plane during a long red-eye flight. Just the lay concept of empathy. Empathy is something that needs to seated next to you a father is holding his 6-month-old baby, and be regulated. People who never show empathy as well as people while youre trying to relax and get some sleep, the baby is who are too sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others can- screaming almost continuously. What your reaction would be? not be socially adapted. You may be compassionate or concerned for the baby girl and Empathy and sympathy play crucial roles in much of human her dad, upset and annoyed because you cannot sleep, or maybe social interaction and are necessary components for healthy angry at yourself because youre aware of being irritated and coexistence. Sympathy is thought to be a proxy for motivating you are thinking that babies do not belong on airplanes. If only prosocial behavior, guiding our preferences and behavioral you had noise-canceling headphones! You may benefit by responses, and providing the affective and motivational base for appraising the situation, taking the perspective of that baby, moral development (Eisenberg & Eggum, 2009). Empathy is not imagining what is like to have earache from changes in cabin unique to humans as many of the biological mechanisms are pressure, and down-regulating your negative and aversive feel- shared with other mammalian species, including the processes ings towards that baby, or imagining if you were in the shoes of involved in intergroup relations that modulate its expression. her father, how concerned you would be for the baby and However, humans are special in the sense that high-level cogni- embarrassed for troubling other passengers. Would your reac- tive abilities such as executive function, language and theory of tion be different if you were a parent of a baby? This example mind are layered on top of phylogenetically older social and illustrates the complexity of the emotions and the range of reac- emotional capacities (Stone, 2006). These evolutionarily newer tions one may experience when exposed to anothers distress aspects of information processing expand the range of behaviors depending on various intrapersonal (e.g., moods, goals, disposi- that can be driven by empathy for the best (like caring for and tions) and situational factors. It also shows that our ability to helping outgroup members or even individuals from different appreciate and understand the emotions of others does not auto- species) but also for the worst (such as cruelty and dehumaniza- matically lead to prosocial behavior, caring and concern, and tion). Furthermore, various psychopathologies are marked by does not necessarily ensure the benevolence that characterizes empathy deficits. For instance, a key feature that distinguishes Author note: The writing of this article was supported by a grant (BCS-0718480) from the National Science Foundation. Corresponding author: Jean Decety, University of Chicago, Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, 5848 S. University Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. Email: [email protected] Decety Dissecting the Neural Mechanisms Mediating Empathy 93 psychopaths from other criminals is their marked lack of concern similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected for their victims, referred to as a lack of empathy, guilt or to feel in the given situation (Eisenberg, Shea, Carlo, & Knight, remorse. Thus a better knowledge of the neural circuits that 1991). Other theorists more narrowly characterize empathy as instantiate the experience of empathy will not only advance our one specific set of congruent emotions, those feelings that are understanding of interpersonal sensitivity but also shed light ontmore other-focused than self-focused (Batson, Fultz, & the basic neural and cognitive mechanisms of emotion pro- Schoenrade, 1987). Very often, empathy and sympathy are con- cessing, their relation with cognition and motivation (i.e., flated. Here, I distinguish between empathy (the ability to empathic concern), individual differences in personality traits, appreciate the emotions and feelings of others with a minimal and mental health. distinction between self and other) and sympathy (feelings of The goal of this article is to critically examine our current concern about the welfare of others). While empathy and sym- knowledge about the neurophysiological underpinnings of pathy are often confused, the two can be dissociated, and empathy in humans. After clarifying some definitional issues of although sympathy may stem from the apprehension of anothers empathy and associated phenomena, and arguing that the con- emotional state, it does not have to be congruent with the affec- struct of empathy needs to be decomposed in a model that tive state of the other. The experience of empathy can lead to includes bottomup processing of affective communication and sympathy (which includes an other-oriented motivation), or topdown processing in which the perceivers motivation, personal distress, an egoistic motivation to reduce stress by intentions, and self-regulation influence the extent of an withdrawing from the stressor, thereby decreasing the likeli- empathic experience, I will discuss how empathy develops and hood of prosocial behavior. Another valuable definition of what are its evolutionary origins focusing on the biology of empathybecause it is based on processescomes from autonomic, endocrine, and other homeostatic processes func- psychoanalysis, in which empathy consists of two acts: (1) an tions of the autonomic nervous system that have developed to identification with the other person; and (2) an awareness of support the needs of mammalian communication and selective ones own feelings after the identification, and in this way an sociality. Next, I will critically review the empirical evidence awareness of the objects feeling (Fenichel, 1945). that supports the notion of shared neural circuits for the genera- tion of behavior, including emotions in oneself and their The Components of Empathy perception from others. I emphasize recent functional neuroim- Given the complexity of what the phenomenological experi- aging studies of pain empathy showing a partial overlap in the ence empathy encompasses, investigation of its neurobiological neural circuits underlying the first-hand experience of pain and the observation of pain in others, and how some interpersonal underpinnings would be worthless without breaking down this variables moderate empathy and sympathetic concern. Lesion construct into component processes. In spite of reports in the popular press that give the appealing, yet wrong notion, that the studies are critical to complement our knowledge about the organization of psychological phenomena maps in a 1:1 fashion functions implemented in the regions found to be involved in empathy, and will thus be briefly reviewed. Finally, I conclude into the organization of the underlying neural substrate, in reality that the current data are compatible with the core affect model empathy, like other social cognitive processes, draws on a la
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