Grey Matter & Empathy

Sad Movies Always Make Me Cry.

Researchers at Monash University have found physical differences in the brains of people who respond emotionally to others’ feelings, compared to those who respond more rationally, in a study published in the journal NeuroImage.

The work, led by Robert Eres from the University’s School of Psychological Sciences, pinpointed correlations between grey matter density and cognitive and affective empathy. The study looked at whether people who have more brain cells in certain areas of the brain are better at different types of empathy.

“People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client,” Mr Eres said.

The researchers used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to examine the extent to which grey matter density in 176 participants predicted their scores on tests that rated their levels for cognitive empathy compared to affective or emotional empathy.

The results showed that people with high scores for affective empathy had greater grey matter density in the insula, a region found right in the ‘middle’ of the brain. Those who scored higher for cognitive empathy had greater density in the midcingulate cortex, an area above the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

“Taken together, these results provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different neural and structural correlates,” the study said.

The findings raise further questions about whether some kinds of empathy could be increased through training, or whether people can lose their capacity for empathy if they don’t use it enough.

“Every day people use empathy with, and without, their knowledge to navigate the social world,” said Mr Eres.

“We use it for communication, to build relationships, and consolidate our understanding of others.”

However, the discovery also raises new questions, like whether people could train themselves to be more empathic and would those areas of the brain become larger if they did, or whether we can lose our ability to empathise if we don’t use it enough.

“In the future we want to investigate causation by testing whether training people on empathy related tasks can lead to changes in these brain structures and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as a result of a stroke for example, can lead to empathy impairments,” said Mr Eres.



2 thoughts on “Grey Matter & Empathy

  1. This 2015 study done at Monash University in Australia was interesting! It brought back to mind and reinforced an older study from 2013 in which scans of Narcissists showed those with this disorder (who clearly suffer with difficulty empathizing) have less gray matter in a part of the cerebral cortex called the left anterior insula. This study looked at the insula–seen as denser in affective or emotional empathy.
    The anterior insula is involved in bodily self-awareness, something that is tied to empathy.

    Hard to figure out other studies Psychiatry Research: 2011 Neuroimaging,at Mass General, Mindfulness Meditation altered 8 areas of the brain but did it by decreasing grey matter density in most–such as the amygdala, though thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. The amygdala plays a central role in empathy because of its connection to fear, thereby cueing you to look at someone’s eyes to help you gather information about that person’s emotions and intentions.

    I wonder how this may correlate with genetic studies showing rs53576(G;G) the homozygous group who are more likely to accurately discern emotion in others. This gene involves Oxytocin receptors.

    First, how do we distinguish empathy? I think altruism has some clear biologic advantages and –in my profession of medicine have been quite saddened to see how rare empathy (or even sympathy) is among fellow providers. Hmm, that presumes I think I have empathy–or is that arrogant? Can we test ourselves?
    Here is one attempt from Berkley–see how valid you think this quiz is: From the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire, developed by Nathan Spreng and his colleagues; the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, developed by Mark Davis; and the Emotion Specific Empathy Questionnaire, developed by Sally Olderbak and her colleagues. it lets you look at your own Affective and cognitive empathy
    I wondered–did I create my scores –was I fooling myself about my behavior? Are we capable of assessing our own sense of high empathy or can it be falsified by high ego?
    Further, there is much discussion about whether this is a static figure or fluctuates–is a PERSON empathic or is someone empathic if the stars are aligned so to speak? The controversy between stress and empathy: does stress lower our empathy ability? Does empathy reduce stress and anxiety…and all the questions in between:
    No single area in the brain is responsible for empathy. Further, our brain lights up whether we are performing an action–or just witnessing an action “Mirroring it” Doing a kind act, watching a kind act. (though this data is a bit sketchy it seems)

    Prefrontal lobes matter: The medial prefrontal cortex compares your perspective to another’s, dorsal medial prefrontal cortex helps you understand your own thoughts & feelings.
    The ventral medial prefrontal cortex stores data about how vehemently you feel about a course of action while inferior frontal gyrus aids emotion recognition.
    Our anterior temporal lobes, perceive and model the social behavior of other people–we seem to learn and retain social learning here.We don’t even have to be conscious of this–hence the worries about TV, peer pressure etc The right temporoparietal junction helps you judge another person’s intentions and beliefs.

    The superior temporal sulcus region notices where other people the focal point of where other people are looking and then interprets where the other person’s emotions are focused. Another person’s speaking also activates this area of the brain.

    The cingulate cortex, in the limbic region is very important for human empathy. The cingulate cortex connects to all three parts of the brain: the brainstem, limbic region, and neocortex. It monitors physiological processes, and emotions, for any problems. When the cingulate neocortex is working well, we regulate our own emotions, and with stable emotions, empathy for other people’s emotions occurs through our mirror neurons. But when the cingulate neocortex is functioning badly, it can’t regulate and noticing others emotions is almost impossible
    The caudal anterior cingulate cortex is activated with pain, both when you feel yours and observe it in others.

    People with Asperger’s don’t follow others eye movements, and some of these brain structures are different, giving them unfair disadvantages and they suffer in guessing people’s hurts, or feelings. BUT some anticipation can be helpfully trained for Aspergers who, after all, don’t enjoy the social disadvantage of striking out this way.
    Sociopaths have different scans from Asperger’s who have different scans from Narcissists who are different from cognitive and affective Normal empathic people. Genetic and tested individuals have predictable scores unless you really stress them first, etc. Thanks for bringing this topic up!!
    MB Lambe

    • In Thailand, I came across the expression ‘same, same but different” and it is aptly descriptive of the juxtaposition? of the mind and the brain. As the former GGSC director Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton is quoted “The human mind is complex. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily.”

      Thanks for your contribution to this posting and thanks also for making me aware of the Greater Good Science Center. (The science of a meaningful life.)

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