University of Wisconsin–Madison

Richard Davidson, PhD

Davidson Slide of the Week 2017

Title: Neural Correlates of Empathic Accuracy in Adolescence

Legend: During functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning, 155 adolescents (aged 11-15 years) watched videos of young adults (‘targets’) describing emotional events from the targets’ adolescence, and made continuous ratings of the targets’ emotions. Adolescents’ ratings were then correlated with targets’ own ratings to compute a measure of empathic accuracy. Higher empathic accuracy was associated with increased activation in brain regions associated with perspective taking (PT; blue) relative to experience sharing (ES; red). These results provide novel insight into the neural basis of empathic accuracy in adolescence and suggest that perspective taking processes may be effective for increasing empathy.

Citation: Kral TRA, Solis E, Mumford JA, Schuyler BS, Flook L, Rifken K, Patsenko EG, Davidson RJ. (2017). Neural correlates of empathic accuracy in adolescence. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsx099.

Abstract: Empathy, the ability to understand others’ emotions, can occur through perspective taking and experience sharing. Neural systems active when adults empathize include regions underlying perspective taking (e.g. medial prefrontal cortex; MPFC), and experience sharing (e.g. inferior parietal lobule; IPL). It is unknown whether adolescents utilize networks implicated in both experience sharing and perspective taking when accurately empathizing. This question is critical given the importance of accurately understanding others’ emotions for developing and maintaining adaptive peer relationships during adolescence. We extend the literature on empathy in adolescence by determining the neural basis of empathic accuracy, a behavioral assay of empathy that does not bias participants toward the exclusive use of perspective taking or experience sharing. Participants (N = 155, aged 11.1-15.5 years) watched videos of “targets” describing emotional events and continuously rated the targets’ emotions during fMRI scanning. Empathic accuracy related to activation in regions underlying perspective taking (MPFC, temporoparietal junction, and superior temporal sulcus), while activation in regions underlying experience sharing (IPL, anterior cingulate cortex, and anterior insula) related to lower empathic accuracy. These results provide novel insight into the neural basis of empathic accuracy in adolescence and suggest that perspective taking processes may be effective for increasing empathy.

About the Investigator: Research in Davidson’s laboratory is focused on the neural bases of disordered and healthy emotion and emotional style and methods to promote human flourishing, including meditation and related contemplative practices. His studies have included persons of all ages, from birth though old age, and have also included individuals with disorders of emotion, such as mood and anxiety disorders and autism, as well as expert meditation practitioners with tens of thousands of hours of experience. His research uses a wide range of methods, including different varieties of MRI, positron emission tomography, electroencephalography, and modern genetic and epigenetic methods.

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