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Can a person's empathy by predicted?

“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.” This is how empathy is defined by Dr. Marco Iacoboni. With his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Iacoboni is seeking to determine whether it's possible to detect and predict empathy in the brain.

Empathy is based in part on the brain’s ability to reflexively and unconsciously process the experiences of others, whether observed or inferred, the same way we do for ourselves; a phenomenon known as “neural resonance.” These processes are associated with control processes that integrate contextual information and conscious evaluation with affective, somatosensory (sensory information from the body) and motor processes. As the authors point out, when it comes to empathy, “resonance and control may exist most often as clusters within a single integrated system” […] the neural bases of resonance and control processes are not cleanly separable within cognitive function.” Previous studies have suggested that the interactions between resonance and control processes may be the basis of individual differences in the degree to which we experience empathy and that these may be observable in the resting brain.

The members of the research team, led by Dr. Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, sought to develop the hypothesis that the interactivity between resonance and control at rest could predict empathy from one person to another. 58 subjects aged 18 to 35 were recruited (30 women, 28 men). The scientists collected brain activity data (via fMRI) on each of the subjects, who were invited to let their minds wander. The researchers also asked the subjects to keep their eyes still by staring at a cross on a black screen. After each “daydreaming” session, the participants filled out an IRI (Interpersonal Reactivity Index), a questionnaire designed to assess cognitive and emotional parameters, the main components of empathy. It consists of 24 statements, which the subjects assess on a scale from 0 (doesn’t describe me well) to 5 (describes me very well). Examples: “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” The questionnaire evaluates four theoretical subdimensions of empathy: the tendency to take the perspective of fictional characters, sympathetic reactions to the distress of other, the tendency to take other’s perspective, and aversive reactions to the distress of others.

By comparing the results of the questionnaire with the data from the fMRI analysis, the researchers were able to determine how precisely they could predict each subject's level of empathy. And indeed, it appears it is possible to predict individual empathy by analyzing the interactions between resonance and control networks. These tendencies could also be predicted from connectivity diagrams within the somatomotor network.

The results of this research have an interesting scope. As stated by M. Iacoboni: “Traditionally, empathy is assessed through the use of questionnaires and psychological assessments. The findings of this study offer an alternative to people who may have difficulty filling out questionnaires, such as people with severe mental illness or autism. […] People with these conditions are thought to lack empathy, 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.”
Source: Leonardo Christov-Moore, Nicco Reggente, Pamela K. Douglas, Jamie D. Feusner, Marco Iacoboni. “Predicting Empathy From Resting State Brain Connectivity: A Multivariate Approach”, in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, Feb. 2020 // UCLA website: “Study finds empathy can be detected in people whose brains are at rest”:


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