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Neuroimage. 2008 Nov 15;43(3):571-80. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.08.014. Epub 2008 Aug 26.

Is emotional contagion special? An fMRI study on neural systems for affective and cognitive empathy.

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  • 1Human Information Processing Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Tampere, Finland. lauri.nummenmaa@uta.fi

Abstract

Empathy allows us to simulate others' affective and cognitive mental states internally, and it has been proposed that the mirroring or motor representation systems play a key role in such simulation. As emotions are related to important adaptive events linked with benefit or danger, simulating others' emotional states might constitute of a special case of empathy. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study we tested if emotional versus cognitive empathy would facilitate the recruitment of brain networks involved in motor representation and imitation in healthy volunteers. Participants were presented with photographs depicting people in neutral everyday situations (cognitive empathy blocks), or suffering serious threat or harm (emotional empathy blocks). Participants were instructed to empathize with specified persons depicted in the scenes. Emotional versus cognitive empathy resulted in increased activity in limbic areas involved in emotion processing (thalamus), and also in cortical areas involved in face (fusiform gyrus) and body perception, as well as in networks associated with mirroring of others' actions (inferior parietal lobule). When brain activation resulting from viewing the scenes was controlled, emotional empathy still engaged the mirror neuron system (premotor cortex) more than cognitive empathy. Further, thalamus and primary somatosensory and motor cortices showed increased functional coupling during emotional versus cognitive empathy. The results suggest that emotional empathy is special. Emotional empathy facilitates somatic, sensory, and motor representation of other peoples' mental states, and results in more vigorous mirroring of the observed mental and bodily states than cognitive empathy.

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