The Neuroscience of Empathy

In collaboration with Jim Coan, I have been developing novel approaches to examining empathy related processes in the context of self-directed and vicarious threat.  For example, we have demonstrated that taking a covariate approach to analyzing empathy-related fMRI data, as opposed to the more typical conjunction analysis approach, provides novel and important information about the extent to which individuals process threat to themselves in a manner similar to the way they process threat directed at others (e.g., Beckes, Coan, & Hasselmo, 2012).  Specifically we have found moderate to high correlations in regions of the threat-matrix such as the anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex between self-related threat response and friend-related threat response.  In most of these same regions there is virtually no correlation between self-related threat and stranger-related threat.

We have also begun to use a within-subjects correlation of threat responding, which acts as a data point for each subject and can then be correlated with other variables of interest.  This individual differences measure of self-other overlap in neural threat responding represents a very novel approach to the neuroscience of relationships and empathy, but so far has proven tremendously predictive. This individual differences measure is positively correlated with a variety of constructs including empathy, friendship validation, perceived social support, maternal responsiveness during adolescence, and neighborhood quality in adolescence (e.g., Beckes, Coan, & Allen, in preparation).