Neural Correlates of Sympathy
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Sympathy has not been not fully studied in the context of neural processes. Thanks to new methods of brain imaging and recording, the emotions anger, disgust, desire, and fear have been intensely studied, and new theories centered on emotion have been born out of this research. Sympathy has been relatively untested in this field of emotional processing, and more research is required to determine how sympathy manifests itself in the brain, and how its functions differ in comparison to other emotions. In 2003, Decety and Chaminade used FMRI to study how the insular cortices, anterior medial cingulate cortex , amygdala, and visual cortices are associated with sympathy, but FMRI has temporal limitations. Electroencephalogram (EEG) methodology is preferred, because of its high temporal resolution. EEG recordings were taken of 40 undergraduate college students. Participants were shown a series of pictures of human faces; half of the pictures were showing a neutral expression, and the other half were showing a fearful expression. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In one condition, to induce sympathy, participants were asked to imagine what the persons in the pictures were experiencing. In the other condition, to induce a lowered sympathy state, participants were asked to try to remain objective while viewing the pictures. Data from the site P8 in the occipito-temporal area of the brain, which has been associated with face processing in previous work by Righart and Gelder in 2008, was extracted and analyzed at roughly 170 milliseconds after stimulus onset. Participants in a sympathetic state showed greater brain activation to fearful faces in this brain area. These results suggest that sympathy affects very rapid neural responses for people and may lead to greater processing and resource allocation for them.
Gravens, Laura (2011). Neural Correlates of Sympathy. Available electronically from