Empathy is a key component of our ability to engage and interact with others. In recent years, the neural mechanisms underlying affective and cognitive empathy have garnered intense interest. This work demonstrates that empathy for others depends upon a distributed network of regions such as the insula, parietal cortex, and somatosensory areas, which are also activated when we ourselves experience an empathized-with emotion (e.g., pain). Individuals vary markedly in their ability to empathize with others, which predicts the tendency to help others and relates to individual differences in the neuroanatomy of these areas. Here, we use a newly developed, high-resolution (800 μm isotropic), quantitative MRI technique to better elucidate the neuroanatomical underpinnings of individual differences in empathy. Our findings extend previous studies of the neuroanatomical correlates of cognitive and affective empathy. In particular, individual differences in cognitive empathy were associated with markers of myeloarchitectural integrity of the insular cortex, while affective empathy was predicted by a marker of iron content in second somatosensory cortex. These results indicate potential novel biomarkers of trait empathy, suggesting that microstructural features of an empathy and body-related network are crucial for understanding the mental and emotional states of others.
Research Professor on society, culture, art, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, neuroscience, autopoiesis, self-organization, complexity, systems, networks, rhizomes, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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