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Changes in brain activity following the voluntary control of empathy

Research group Gazzola
Publication year 2020
Published in NeuroImage
Authors K C Borja Jimenez, Abdel-Rahman Abdelgabar, L De Angelis, L. McKay, Christian Keysers, V. Gazzola

In neuroscience, empathy is often conceived as relatively automatic. The voluntary control that people can exert on brain mechanisms that map the emotions of others onto our own emotions has received comparatively less attention. Here, we therefore measured brain activity while participants watched emotional Hollywood movies under two different instructions: to rate the main characters’ emotions by empathizing with them, or to do so while keeping a detached perspective. We found that participants yielded highly consistent and similar ratings of emotions under both conditions. Using intersubject correlation-based analyses we found that, when encouraged to empathize, participants’ brain activity in limbic (including cingulate and putamen) and somatomotor regions (including premotor, SI and SII) synchronized more during the movie than when encouraged to detach. Using intersubject functional connectivity we found that comparing the empathic and detached perspectives revealed widespread increases in functional connectivity between large scale networks. Our findings contribute to the increasing awareness that we have voluntary control over the neural mechanisms through which we process the emotions of others.

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