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Soc Neurosci. 2014 Feb;9(1):74-81. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2013.855253. Epub 2013 Nov 12.

Are empathic abilities learnable? Implications for social neuroscientific research from psychometric assessments.

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a Biological and Clinical Psychology , Institute of Psychology, Friedrich-Schiller-University , Jena , Germany.


Empathy is defined as an individually varying but stable personality trait. To our knowledge this notion seems questionable considering recent studies proving neuronal plasticity not only in childhood and adolescence but over the whole lifespan. We propose a model in which an individual's basic empathic abilities-arising from genetic factors, brain maturation, and early attachment experiences -are continually modulated by the intensity, continuity, and frequency of interpersonal socio-emotional stimulation and challenges. We assume neural processes and their underlying neural structures being modified by social and socio-emotional stimulation. Continuous social interactions should produce noticeable effects on the empathic abilities of an individual independent of age or brain maturation level. In particular, empathic abilities should be learnable and expandable beyond specific developmental windows. To elucidate this hypothesis we surveyed empathy measures of students of various professions with the help of a new instrument, the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE) categorizing them into three different groups depending on their subsequent occupational fields: medical students, students of academic social professions, and a control group. Results indicate that continuous socio-emotional stimulation could increase empathic abilities potentially leading to learning effects.

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