What Part of the brain is responsible for empathy?

In this post we will introduce you to the part of the brain responsible for empathy. Do you know what empathy is? Stay with us and we will explain the brain mechanisms under this social and emotional ability.

What Part of the brain is responsible for empathy?

The part of the brain responsible for empathy is the cerebral cortex, specifically the anterior insular cortex.

This is a true story: “Robert is a homeless boy. For many years, he has not had any friends. He used to live with his mother in a car crammed with all of her belongings. He now lives in a homeless shelter with his mother.

He is scared because there are also many disturbing people living there, and he is in a dangerous part of the city. He has started going to school in a different neighborhood and is making friends. He likes kickball, is brilliant, and dreams of becoming a famous scientist. His teachers have seen his potential and stimulate him”.

As the reader reads this story, his brain recreates Robert’s suffering so that he can understand it and act on it. These two emotional processes, the identification with another person and the compassion that comes from understanding his situation, are actually two sides of the same coin: empathy, the basis of many social behaviors.

Simply put, empathy is the ability to perceive, understand, and become infected with the emotions that surround us. With this definition, we can imagine the scope that this ability has in our development.

Although the emotional history of each one influences the ability to perceive the emotions of others, it is something that we have to work on constantly. Also, even though our early experiences have not been favorable, anyone has the ability to develop empathy.

Empathy is a basic neural mechanism in humans. In primitive communities, this ability to interpret the mental states of the other and put oneself in their place served to know if those who approached the group had good or bad intentions.

Empathy is essential for human relationships. So much so that, except for psychopaths or autists, all humans are empathic beings. A group of researchers from the USA has studied in which part of the brain it is generated and if it is the same in different people.

Empathy, emotional reading inside our brain

With a good disposition, we can reach the emotional climate that allows us to reach this harmony and decipher desires, desires, deeply buried messages, needs, etc.

All this wonderful process that sometimes can seem almost magical takes place in our brain, which skillfully performs an intense emotional reading.

The next question to answer is inevitably how you do it. Luckily for us, science is getting answers and is managing to locate many areas in which our emotional capacity resides. Let’s look at some of these discoveries:

  • One of the most important findings in neuroscience has been that of mirror neurons, which are present in our emotional circuits. 

These are brain cells that fulfill the mission of reflecting in our brain what we are observing (the effect that seeing another person yawn has on us is well known).

  • The limbic system is the foundation of our emotional brain. This brain area is functional from birth and even from the womb. It encompasses the temporal lobe, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the orbitofrontal area.

The latter functions as a repetition station, as it perceives and transmits information to the rest of the body about one’s own and other people’s emotional state.

  • The frontal lobe is our executive brain. This part of us is responsible for modulating and managing the emotions of the limbic system so that we can fit them into the environment that surrounds us.

That is, it allows us to be functional beings in society and enables us to act correctly according to social norms, as well as to be reflective with our feelings and actions.

  • The cerebral hemispheres. In general terms, we can affirm that our left hemisphere dominates the ability to reflect on emotions while in the right hemisphere the limbic system carries more weight.

Although at the individual level brain differences can be abysmal, it has been found that in men an executive brain activity predominates in terms of emotions, while in women the limbic system has become more important.

This helps us support the popular belief that the female world tends to be more emotional, thus understanding that women tend to have greater empathic capacities.

Be that as it may, empathy can be developed by both men and women in the same way. It is important, therefore, that we literate our emotional brain and strive to look at the world through the eyes of others. The trip is wonderful…

Brain areas associated with empathy

For the first time, research from the University of Colorado at Boulder (United States) has mapped the areas of the human brain associated with these two components of empathy.

Using neuroimaging techniques, scientists have discovered that the circuits involved in both processes are different and that they are associated with different emotions.

The new map, presented this week in the journal Neuron, will have applications in the diagnosis of disorders related to empathy, such as autism or psychopathy.

The research involved 66 volunteers who underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging, which shows the activity of different areas of the brain in real-time.

During the scan, participants listened to 24 true stories taken from charity websites, in which, like Robert, the protagonists had experienced hardships ranging from a disease such as cancer to sexual abuse.

Once the MRI was over, they listened to the excerpts again, but communicating how much compassion and how much empathy they felt at each moment of the story.

Suffering and compassion

Thus, the researchers found that when we expose ourselves to the suffering of another, we first become infected with their suffering, since regions involved in the mental representation of the state of the body and that of other people are activated.

“These are areas that other researchers designate as part of a‘ mirror system, ’” explains Yoni Ashar, first author of the research, by email. “This system helps us to understand the state of others, to empathize, making the brain simulate their experience.”

This suffering for empathy is followed by compassion, “a feeling of sympathy and tenderness,” in Ashar’s words, prompting us to help the person with whom we empathize.

In this case, the circuits that are activated participate in valuation, trust, support for a loved one and social behavior, among others.

The scientists then investigated how the patterns they found correlated with other emotions.

A second experiment with 200 volunteers via the internet showed that, while clearly negative feelings are associated with the perception of the suffering of others – such as sadness, fear, anger or rejection – compassion coexists with a cocktail of both positive and negative emotions.

In addition, they found that identification with the suffering of others induces compassion.

Finally, they studied how empathy influences social behavior: a charitable donation. Volunteers had the opportunity to donate part of the money they earned from participating in the study to the charities from which the stories for the experiment were obtained.

In this way, the authors tested the ability of their model to predict the decisions of the participants based on their feelings. It turned out that at the brain level, the feeling that is associated with larger donations is the perception of the suffering of others.

Results

Within the empathy that the stories aroused, they were able to appreciate two well-differentiated patterns between the one that has to do with solidarity and compassion and empathic anguish.

In the first, brain areas such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the orbitofrontal medial cortex participate, related to the processes with which the brain values ​​something.

“The same regions that intervene in the valuation of food or money are involved in our study when valuing the well-being of others,” explains Yoni Ashar, a member of Wager’s group and lead author of the study.

However, stories such as that of a war veteran who ends up begging in the streets or that of a cancer patient who ends badly, which arouse more anguish than compassion, activate other areas of the brain, such as the premotor cortex or the primary somatosensory cortex.

Both are known to participate in so-called mirror processes. “The brain areas that appear preferentially related to empathic distress are also activated while we experience or observe actions, sensations and facial expressions,” says Ashar.

But the result that has attracted the most attention from this work published in the journal Neuron is that all the people scanned showed very similar brain patterns when they empathized with the protagonists of each story.

Although the emotion is very personal, the pattern of activation is common. In fact, they were able to use these patterns as markers to predict how another group of 200 people who did not have their brains scan would rate the same stories the first one heard.

Researchers believe that these patterns could, in the future, serve in the detection of disorders such as psychopathy.

FAQS: Part of brain responsible for empathy

Is the amygdala necessary for empathy?

According to various studies, the amygdala would be responsible for assigning emotional content to memories, especially those related to fear. And also, it could be classified as the neurobiological basis of empathy, since its main role is the processing and storage of emotional reactions.

How does empathy work in the brain?

Brain empathy is called the human ability to put oneself in the place of the other and thereby understand their feelings in any situation. Mirror neurons are a complex system of neurotransmitter nerve cells that are activated by perceiving any type of emotion.

What triggers empathy?

Empathy is a capacity that helps us understand the feelings of others, also facilitating the understanding of the reasons for their behavior, and thus preventing major conflicts.

Does the frontal lobe control empathy?

The frontal lobe, the executive brain

This part of the brain manages to modulate and manage the emotions of the limbic system so that we can fit them into our external environment, allowing us to be functional beings in society.

What part of the brain is damaged in psychopaths?

The study showed that psychopaths have reduced connections between the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for feelings such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which is responsible for recognizing fear and anxiety.

In this post we introduced you to the part of the brain responsible for empathy. We explained the brain mechanisms under this social and emotional ability.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!

References

Ashar, Y. K., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Dimidjian, S., & Wager, T. D. (2017). Empathic care and distress: predictive brain markers and dissociable brain systems. Neuron, 94(6), 1263-1273.

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