Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In an fMRI study by Dr. Slyvia Morelli at UCLA, researchers assessed the empathetic responses of 32 participants. In the study, participants were asked to empathize with images of people exhibiting pain, anxiety, and happiness. For the pain condition, participants in the fMRI scanner were presented with an image of someone in a physically painful condition and asked to imagine how much pain that person would be in. For the anxiety and happiness condition, participants were presented with a contextual sentence, followed by six images depicting different people in that situation. The participants were then asked to imagine how each person might feel in either the happy or anxiety-inducing conditions. Finally, participants in the neutral condition were presented with images of people performing everyday tasks, such as ironing or preparing food. (Morelli, Rameson, & Lieberman, 2012).
The results of the study indicate that the empathetic responses occur throughout the brain. The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula (AI), two brain regions associated with negative affect, were activated upon empathizing with people experiencing pain and anxiety. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a region associated with positive affect, was active when participants were empathizing with happy people. Additionally, the putative mirror neuron system was more active for context-independent empathizing (empathy with pain) than for context-dependent empathizing (empathy with anxiety and happiness). Another interesting finding of the study indicated that septal area was active while empathizing with all three emotions in the study: pain, anxiety, and happiness (Morelli et al.). Therefore, this study implicates the dACC, the AI, the VMPFC, and the putative mirror system as important for empathizing with painful, anxiety-inducing, and happy situations.
An article in Science Daily explored a few studies similar to Morelli’s, which aimed to pinpoint the areas of the brain responsible for empathizing and performing altruistic behaviors. In one fMRI study, 20 people watched a video of a hand being poked with a pin, and were then asked to imitate facial expressions from a variety of emotions. The researchers determined that the amygdala, somatosensory cortex, and the anterior insula are associated with experiencing pain and imitating others (ScienceDaily). Another part of the same study had participants playing the “dictator game”, in which participants were given $10 with which they could keep for themselves or share with a stranger. Participants with the most activity in the prefrontal cortex were more likely to be greedy, while participants with more activity in the brain regions associated with empathizing (perceiving pain and emotion) were more likely to give away a greater amount of their money. These findings suggest that people with more activation in the prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain associated with inhibition and regulating behavior) are less likely to perform the altruistic behaviors associated with empathy (ScienceDaily).
These studies conducted by Dr. Sylvia Morelli and other researchers revealed the brain regions most important in experiencing empathy. These areas include the dACC, the AI, the VMPFC, the putative mirror neuron system, the somatosensory cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is also important in inhibiting helping behavior, thus it inhibits empathy. This kind of research is important for understanding human nature and the way in which we can relate to each other. It allows gives us a better idea of how to encourage helping behavior.
Morelli, S. A., Rameson, L. T., & Lieberman, M. D. (2012). The neural components of empathy: predicting daily prosocial behavior. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9, 39-47. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss088
University of California - Los Angeles. (2016, March 18). Your brain might be hard-wired for altruism: Neuroscience research suggests an avenue for treating the empathically challenged. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 2, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160318102101.htm