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Exploring New Frameworks of Empathy

If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping may not arise. This research explores two components of empathy in the adolescent population – perspective taking and experience sharing. We use the neural signatures for empathic concern (empathy that motivates us to help) and empathic distress (empathy that causes us to get stuck in our own emotional response) to better understand how people experience this complex, evolving emotional process during this critical developmental period.  

Study Details

Empathy may come in the form of feeling joy when you see another person smile or perhaps sadness from seeing another person cry. It’s often referred to as being in another person’s “shoes” and feeling what they feel. 

However, empathy, and the scientific constructs the research community has used to study it, is more complex than previously thought and the neural mechanisms at play can differ greater by context, age and background.

Drawing from empathic accuracy tasks and imaging data from an adolescent population, this project explores additional frameworks of empathy ­that more fully examine two components of empathy: “perspective taking,” a cognitive process of understanding another’s situation or feelings; and “experience sharing,” an affective process of feeling and mirroring another’s emotional state. Each component of empathy gives one different ways of knowing, and data is from this study suggests that activation of specific neural networks in the brain is associated with differential performance on an empathy task that may be unique to adolescents.

In addition, this research will employ new predictive modeling methods that draw from published literature on neural signatures associated with empathic concern and empathic distress. Ultimately, the goal is to learn whether distress signatures may predict lower empathic accuracy in adolescents, deepening scientific knowledge about empathy as a complex and likely evolving emotional process that changes across the lifespan.

People Working on This Study

Richard J. Davidson
Founder, Center for Healthy Minds & Healthy Minds Innovations, William James & Vilas Professor of Psychology & Psychiatry
Lisa Flook
Lisa Flook
Former Associate Scientist, Center for Healthy Minds
Tammi Kral
Scientist, Center for Healthy Minds

Media Related to this Project

Transforming Empathy Into Compassion: Why It Matters
Feb 28, 2023
Why some kinds of empathy are better for you than others.

Related Publications

Kral, T. R. A., Solis, E., Mumford, J. A., Schuyler, B. S., Flook, L., Rifken, K., Patsenko, E. G., & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Neural correlates of empathic accuracy in adolescence. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(11), 1701-10. doi:10.1093/scan/nsx099 PMCID: PMC5714170
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