Neurobiology of empathy

młodszy brat przytula płaczącą siostrę
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Published: 22-11-2015

Last modified: 29-03-2020

Psychology distinguishes between two types of empathy. From the perspective of emotions empathy is the ability to empathize emotional states of other people, but from the cognitive perspective – the ability to understand the beliefs, feelings and intentions of others. Empathy is a complex process, which involves at least two paths: “bottom-up” and “top-down”. The path “bottom-up” is probably based on the so-called mirror neurons and is responsible for the emotional aspect of empathy, while on the path “top-down” is committed to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the functioning of the ability to take someone else’s perspective, ie. the cognitive aspect of empathy.

Information processing “bottom-up”

In the path “bottom-up” is involved the mirror neurons system (MNS). It works on the principle of “mirror” – when you see someone who performs a certain movement, in your brain comes to activation of the nerve cells responsible for this movement. Stimulation of the mirror neurons also occurs when you imagine someone making some movement and if you follow this movement. In studies in which subjects were told to observe or imitate the facial expressions of different emotions, their brain areas responsible for the physical representation of the face increased activaions. According to the so-called model of perception-activation observation and imagination what it feels like someone else, automatically activates neural pathways responsible for the representation of observed people feelings. Based on these internal representations we can recognize emotions in others and express them using gestures or facial expressions.

Other studies have shown that both watching people disgusted by odor and direct smelling odors leads to activation of these same areas of the brain; the same has been shown in studies in which subjects were either touched or watched a person touched by someone. Most results confirming the theory of mirror neurons obtained from studies of pain empathy. In most studies using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while observing or imagining the pain of others underwent the strongest activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insular cortex. In the studies of pain empathy conducted by other methods there was demonstrated activation of the somatosensory cortex.

Information processing “top-down”

The way of processing information, “top-down” is responsible for the cognitive aspect of empathy – allows you to imagine and understand what the other person feels by accepting his point of view, perceptions and intentions. This ability to attribute mental states to themselves and others is called theory of mind. When a person is asked to imagine what the intentions, desires and beliefs has another person activation increases ;mainly in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), temporoparietal junction, superior temporal sulcus (STS) and pole of the temporal lobe. Medial prefrontal cortex probably also takes part in the emotional aspect of emotions. Activation of this part of brain occurres not only when subjects are asked to imagine what someone thinks about a topic, but also what he feels. In people suffering from various types of autism, this area is not activated, and that is the reason for the inability of such people to empathize and recognize emotions in others. People with a damaged prefrontal cortex and children, in whom it is still immature, are unable to take someone else’s perspective and have tendency to emotional contagion (eg. Infecting children crying), which results from the activity of the mirror neuron system.

Factors controling the level of empathy

According to the research results, the level of activation of areas of the brain responsible for the pain are higher for chronic pain, than acute pain watching in the other person, and also depends on the relationship between a person and observed empathizer. The closer relationship or a stronger emotional bond, the stronger activation. The level of empathy is also affected by the situational context. Activation of areas associated with pain was lower when subjects were convinced that the person they observed must listen very unpleasant sounds for therapeutic purposes than when they were not informed about medicinal purposes. Other studies have shown that these areas are more strongly activated when we observe the male face of experiencing pain than a woman’s face. During observing male’s face there is activated also the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, probably because the pain on the male’s face is seen as a danger signal.

Several studies also confirm the stereotypical belief about stronger capacity for empathy in women than in men. Women are better able to empathize because they have more gray matter in areas which have demonstrated the existence of mirror neurons. Changes in the activity of these neurons are also higher in women than in men. Women, unlike men empathize with others, regardless of whether that person acted honestly towards them, or unfairly. In men watching experiencing pain by a person who acted against them unfairly, it resulted in only a small activation in areas responsible for empathy, but high activation of the brain’s reward system, which demonstrates the high level of satisfaction from punishing a person that was unfair to them. In women, the difference between the activation of the areas involved in empathy while watching people fair and unfair was very small and there was no activation of the reward system.


Kamila Jankowiak-Siuda, Katarzyna Siemieniuk, Anna Grabowska „Neurobiologiczne podstawy empatii”,  Neuropsychiatria i Neuropsychologia, nr 4/2009

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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