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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Apr 29;100(9):5497-502. Epub 2003 Apr 7.

Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: a relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas.

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  • 1Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, Neuropsychiatric Institute, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.


How do we empathize with others? A mechanism according to which action representation modulates emotional activity may provide an essential functional architecture for empathy. The superior temporal and inferior frontal cortices are critical areas for action representation and are connected to the limbic system via the insula. Thus, the insula may be a critical relay from action representation to emotion. We used functional MRI while subjects were either imitating or simply observing emotional facial expressions. Imitation and observation of emotions activated a largely similar network of brain areas. Within this network, there was greater activity during imitation, compared with observation of emotions, in premotor areas including the inferior frontal cortex, as well as in the superior temporal cortex, insula, and amygdala. We understand what others feel by a mechanism of action representation that allows empathy and modulates our emotional content. The insula plays a fundamental role in this mechanism.

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