Methods Toward A Science Of Behavior And Experience William J. Ray
Until relatively recently, the neural activity underpinning these two processes appeared almost entirely non-overlapping. In other words, tasks and social stimuli that engaged one of these systems typically did not concurrently engage the other system.3 Moreover, lesions to areas in each of these neural systems have been shown to produce dissociable impairments in experience sharing and perspective taking.4 Together, such findings supported the claim that these two processes are fundamentally dissociable routes to empathy. However, recent cognitive neuroscience research indicates that rather than being engaged in isolation, neural systems that are involved in experience sharing and perspective taking commonly co-activate when an observer encounters complex social cues, such as people engaging others in live joint attention tasks.5 Researchers also note that although studies of experience sharing and perspective taking clearly draw upon dissociable neural networks, the fact that these studies tend to rely on different stimulus types and task demands (i.e. passively viewing others in pain vs. explicit, active inferences about others) complicates the interpretation of their observed neural distinction. In other words, dissociations between these neural systems could either reflect a separation between the two empathic subprocesses, or they could reflect less interesting variation in the types of stimuli exposed to perceivers (NEP).
Methods Toward a Science of Behavior and Experience William J. Ray
To provide some background and with these caveats in mind, each of the components of empathy (experience sharing, perspective taking) is described here separately from both a developmental and a neuroscience perspective, followed by a review of recent research with atypical populations.
One limitation of many of these studies is that they often do not capture any continuous changes across age. As children enter adolescence, levels of empathic concern, personal distress, and helping behavior all change,30 and neurobiological systems implicated in affective resonance undergo substantial transformation,31 making this a critical period of development in which to examine these phenomena. Besides the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in understanding and regulating social emotions,32 also the insular cortex, which is critical for the elaboration of visceral states and their contextual regulation, belongs to the areas of the brain undergoing considerable remodeling from childhood to adolescence. The insula receives inputs from incoming fibers that carry information concerning the internal state of the body. Research suggests that the posterior insula codes lower-level basic interoceptive and somatosensory information, and that as one progresses toward the front, this low-level sensory information is linked with higher level cognitive and affective networks that impart salience and meaning to these basic interoceptive signals.33 Thus, the posterior insula appears to be a key region for perception of interoceptive feelings, whereas the anterior insula appears to be critical for contextual integration of interoceptive input, association of interoception and emotion, and cognitive regulation of the integrated interoceptive representations. To examine age-related changes associated with empathy and sympathy, we collected MRI and behavioral data from a group of 57 participants ranging from 7 to 40 years of age.34 A significant negative correlation between age and degree of activation was found in the posterior insula. In contrast, a positive correlation was found in the anterior portion. Results from this study also showed that activation in the OFC in response to empathy-eliciting stimuli shifts from the engagement of the medial portion in young participants to the lateral portion in older participants. The medial OFC appears integral in guiding visceral and motor responses, whereas lateral OFC integrates the external sensory features of a stimulus with its impact on the homeostatic state of the body. Thus, a visceral response to painful stimuli associated with danger and negative affect is less likely to occur with increasing age and such a response may be replaced by a more detached appraisal of the stimulus.
Empathy is thought to play a key role in motivating helping behavior and providing the affective basis for moral development. Emotional empathy develops as a result of complex biological and psychological processes involving emotion sharing, emotional regulation, and cognitive perspective taking that are continuously evolving and interacting with an individuals social environment. Breaking down empathy and related phenomena into components and examining their neurodevelopment can contribute to a more complete model of interpersonal sensitivity. Likewise, drawing from multiple sources of data can improve our understanding of the nature and causes of empathy deficits in individuals with antisocial behavior disorders. Neuroimaging studies clearly document that watching someone in pain elicits a negative arousal response in the observer (underpinned but the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and PAG), to a stronger degree in children than in young adults (NCC). Findings indicate that although children and adults have similar patterns of brain response to perceiving other people in pain, there are important changes in the functional organization in the neural structures implicated in empathy and sympathy that occur over an extended period from childhood through adulthood. Moreover, given the importance of empathy for healthy psychological and social interaction, it is clear that a developmental approach using functional neuroimaging to elucidate the computational mechanisms underlying affective reactivity, regulation and behavioral outcomes is essential to complement traditional behavioral methods and gain a better understanding of how deficits may arise in the context of development.