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Neuropsychologia. 2006;44(5):752-61. Epub 2005 Sep 6.

Empathy examined through the neural mechanisms involved in imagining how I feel versus how you feel pain.

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Social Cognitive Neuroscience, Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington, Box 357988, Seattle, WA 98155-7988, USA.


Perspective-taking is a stepping stone to human empathy. When empathizing with another individual, one can imagine how the other perceives the situation and feels as a result. To what extent does imagining the other differs from imagining oneself in similar painful situations? In this functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment, participants were shown pictures of people with their hands or feet in painful or non-painful situations and instructed to imagine and rate the level of pain perceived from different perspectives. Both the Self's and the Other's perspectives were associated with activation in the neural network involved in pain processing, including the parietal operculum, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC; BA32) and anterior insula. However, the Self-perspective yielded higher pain ratings and involved the pain matrix more extensively in the secondary somatosensory cortex, the ACC (BA 24a'/24b'), and the insula proper. Adopting the perspective of the Other was associated with specific increase in the posterior cingulate/precuneus and the right temporo-parietal junction. These results show the similarities between Self- and Other-pain representation, but most interestingly they also highlight some distinctiveness between these two representations, which is a crucial aspect of human empathy. It may be what allows us to distinguish empathic responses to others versus our own personal distress. These findings are consistent with the view that empathy does not involve a complete Self-Other merging.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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