THE NEURAL CORRELATES OF EMPATHY

 

Sharing the distress of others involves experiencing emotional pain as a result of witnessing another's pain. Research in humans has demonstrated that a common neural network is used for processing the aversive affect resulting from physical pain to the self, and from observing pain in others. This neural network involves areas in the Amygdala, Anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, PAG, and somatosensory cortex. I am studying the mechanism by which a social signal of distress, rather than a nociceptive signal of pain, activates the affective “pain matrix” circuit. Understanding the cascade by which another's distress causes the observer to feel pain is an important piece of the puzzle for the study of the biological basis of pro-sociality.

Photo from Decety et al. 2008

Research Interests

DEVELOPMENT OF PRO-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

I aim is to understand the biological mechanism that links maternal behavior during development to empathic helping in adulthood. Developmental research has found that concern for others emerges during the first year of life before the emergence of language and theory of mind. The appropriate development of empathic concern is crucial in motivating helping behavior towards others. While children normally  possess an innate capacity for emotional contagion and an aversion to anti-social behavior, a deficient relationship with the primary care taker can result in abnormal social development. Difficulty in processing the emotional cues of distress from other can lead to callous behavioral traits including aggression and violence.  The formation of a proper attachment style between the mother and child is critical in promoting the development of socially functional individuals.

SOCIAL BIAS AND PRO-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

Empathic concern develops most readily between similar individuals and motivates pro-social behavior directed preferentially towards affiliated others. How do animals form categorization of others into in-group and out-group members, and by what mechanism is a specific social behavior (pro-social vs. agressive) assigned to one conspecific but not another? The Emapthic Behavior Test is an excellent model by which these questions can studied.  

IMMUNITY AND EMPATHY

 

Social support is a major factor in reducing effects of stress and ilness both in humans and other animals. It is unclear how the presence of a caring affiliated other induces these protective effects. I am interested in exploring the pathway by which empathy effects the HPA axis and inflammation and immune profiles of animals undergoing a homeostatic challange.  

Dr. Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal