The brain at rest holds clues to empathy

Empathy helps us resonate with others on both an emotional and physical level. Now, research may have found the roots of this visceral emotion in the brain’s resting state.

The neurological underpinnings of empathy have long preoccupied scientists.

From mirror neurons that help us “reflect” other people’s emotions, to using brain scans that detect different kinds of empathy, researchers have always tried to dig deep into the brain, searching for the roots of this profound human feeling.

Now, they have asked another interesting question: Is it possible for the brain to reveal how empathetic a person is, even in its resting state?

The answer seems to be yes, according to the results of new research appearing in the journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience.

Marco Iacoboni, who is a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), is the senior author of the new research.

He explains the motivation for the study, saying, “Assessing empathy is often the hardest in the populations that need it most.”

“Empathy is a cornerstone of mental health and well-being. It promotes social and cooperative behavior through our concern for others. It also helps us to infer and predict the internal feelings, behavior, and intentions of others.”

Examining empathy in the brain

Prof. Iacoboni and colleagues asked 58 male and female participants aged from 18 to 35 years old to participate in a functional MRI (fMRI) experiment wherein the scientists measured and mapped brain activity by tracking subtle changes in blood flow.

During the experiment, the researchers asked the participants to look at a white fixation cross on a black screen and “just let [their] mind wander.”

The researchers recorded functional images of the brain in its resting state. Specifically, they used BOLD imaging techniques to examine the brain.

After the fMRI experiment, the researchers asked the participants to fill in the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a standard questionnaire that measures the “cognitive” and “emotional” aspects of empathy.

The IRI consists of “24 statements that the participant rates on a five-point scale, ranging from 0 (Does not describe me very well) to 5 (Describes me very well).”

Examples of IRI statements include: “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me;” “Sometimes, I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems;” “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them;” “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”

Findings may lead to new therapies

Using machine learning algorithms, the researchers set out to examine if subtle patterns in fMRI data predicted a person’s empathetic proneness.

“We found that even when not engaged directly in a task that involves empathy, brain activity within these networks can reveal people’s empathic disposition,” reports Prof. Iacoboni.

“The beauty of the study is that the MRIs helped us predict the results of each participant’s questionnaire,” he goes on, adding that the study may help those with autism spectrum disorder and other conditions that some experts believe involve little to no empathy.

“People with these conditions are thought to lack empathy,” Prof. Iacoboni explains.

“But if we can demonstrate that their brains have the capability for empathy, we can work to improve it through training and the use of other therapies.”
– Prof. Marco Iacoboni

“The predictive power of machine learning algorithms like this one, when applied to brain data, can also help us predict how well a given patient will respond to a given intervention, helping us tailor optimal therapeutic strategies from the get-go,” adds the scientist.

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