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Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(2):127-38.

Neural correlates of feeling sympathy.

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  • 1University of Washington Center for Mind, Brain and Learning, P.O. Box 357988, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


Positron emission tomography (PET) was used to investigate the neural correlates of feeling sympathy for someone else (i.e. the affinity, association, or relationship between persons wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other). While undergoing PET scans, subjects were presented with a series of video-clips showing individuals (who were semi-professional stage actors) telling sad and neutral stories, as if they had personally experienced them. These stories were told with either congruent or incongruent motor expression of emotion (MEE). At the end of each movie, subjects were asked to rate the mood of the communicator and also how likable they found that person. Watching sad stories versus neutral stories was associated with increased activity in emotion processing-related structures, as well as in a set of cortical areas that belong to a "shared representation" network, including the right inferior parietal cortex. Motor expression of emotion, regardless of the narrative content of the stories, resulted in a specific regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) increase in the left inferior frontal gyrus. The condition of mismatch between the narrative content of the stories and the motor expression of emotion elicited a significant skin conductance response and strong rCBF increase in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and superior frontal gyrus which are involved in dealing with social conflict. Taken together, these results are consistent with a model of feeling sympathy that relies on both the shared representation and the affective networks. Interestingly, this network was not activated when subjects watched inappropriate social behavior.

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