New research has found that types of empathy can be predicted by looking at physical differences in the brain. This raises the fascinating possibility that some kinds of empathy might be able to be increased by training or that it might be possible for people to lose their empathy over time.
A team of scientists, from Monash University, found that people who have what’s termed “affective” empathy, where they have a strong emotional response to what someone might be feeling or thinking, have denser grey matter in a certain region of the brain compared with those who have “cognitive” empathy, or people who have a more logical response to another’s emotional state.
“People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene,” explained Robert Eres, who co-authored the study. “Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client.”
The researchers looked at 176 people and used data from a neuroimaging technique known as a “voxel-based morphometry,” which analyzes the density of a type of brain tissue called grey matter. The team wanted to know whether this could be predictive of how they would score on a test that rated them on a scale of affective to cognitive empathy.
They found that those who had high effective empathy also had denser grey matter in a region called the “insular cortex,” which is folded into the center of the brain. Conversely, they found that people who scored highly for cognitive empathy had denser grey matter in the “midcingulate cortex,” a region found just above the connection between the two hemispheres.
“Taken together, these results provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry," claim the researchers in their paper, published in the journal NeuroImage. Additionally, the authors say this could provide evidentiary support that empathy is represented by different structures and brain cell populations.
According to the scientists, the finding that empathy can be linked to differences in the brain's physiology raises the question of whether changes in those regions alter people’s capacity to understand how others feel. It might also suggest that empathy could be lost if those regions aren’t used regularly enough.
“In the future we want to investigate causation by testing whether training people on empathy related tasks can lead to changes in these brain structures and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as a result of a stroke for example, can lead to empathy impairments,” says Eres.