3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup: Empathy (August 6)

UPDATE: New links from Lori Hogenkamp via Facebook at end of post.

Brief note: I’ve come to realize that empathy (and its putative component processes – mirror neuron networks, affect sharing, mentalizing) brings out almost everything that’s problematic in social neuroscience research: problems of a conceptually vague cover term, problems with extrapolating from animal models (e.g., monkeys don’t imitate); problems with fMRI/ROI, problems with science writing for the public (e.g., this publisher blurb for Marco Iacoboni’s Mirroring People: “From imitation to morality, from learning to addiction, from political affiliations to consumer choices, mirror neurons seem to have properties that are relevant to all these aspects of social cognition”), problems with a too-powerful metaphor (err, the mirror) that’s hard to repack in the box after that last quote :( problems with extrapolating in other ways (see Emily Willingham’s post on what she describes as the “no empathy in autism meme” – as Ian Hacking said, “The history of late 20th century medicine will … also [be] a history of advocacy groups”), etc., etc.

On second thought, there are many positive implications that hover over all this work – for theory of mind, radical embodied cognition, network science approaches to the brain’s structural and functional connectivity  . . .

Many thanks to the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook for suggestions and Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion for inspiration! 


1. “Empathy as cultural process: Insights from the cultural neuroscience of empathy” by Bobby Cheon, Vani Mathur, and Joan Chiao (WCPRR, 2010).

2. Via Eugene Raikhel (Neuroanthropology Interest Group): See the just-published special issue of “Science in Context” on “The Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art, and History.” It includes an article by Shaun Gallagher (“Empathy, Simulation, and Narrative“), one by Allan Young (“The Social Brain and the Myth of Empathy“) and a number of others.

3. Roundup on “Anthropology, Teaching, and Empathy” in early 2012 by Jason Antrosio of Anthropology Report and a related post by Rex on Savage Minds, “Empathy, or, seeing from within.”

4. Hollan, D. C., & Throop, C. J. (2011). The anthropology of empathy: Experiencing the lives of others in Pacific societies. New York: Berghahn.

5. Blog post by Emily Willingham (Dec 2011): “Autistic people: Insensitive to social reputation, sure, but what about empathy?” on the website Autism and Empathy.


1. Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 1–23.

2. Decety, J. Norman, G. J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98(1), 38–48. See also, Decety, J. (2011b). The neuroevolution of empathyAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35–45.

3. Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: Progress, pitfalls and promiseNature Neuroscience: Focus on Social Neuroscience [Perspective], 15(5), 675–680.

4. Decety, J. (2011a). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emotion Review, 3,92–108. See also, Decety, J. (2010). To what extent is the experience of empathy mediated by shared neural circuits? Emotion Review, 2(3), 204–207.

5. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats” Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason. See also 2011 Science paper by same group.



1. Cheng, Y., Hung, A., & Decety, J. (2012). Dissociation between affective sharing and emotion understanding in juvenile psychopathsDevelopment and Psychopathology, 24, 623–636.

[From Abstract]. . . youth with HCU [high callous-unemotional traits] exhibit atypical neural dynamics of pain empathy processing in the early stage of affective arousal, which is coupled with their relative insensitivity to actual pain. Their capacity to understand intentionality, however, was not affected. Such uncoupling between affective arousal and emotion understanding may contribute to instigating aggressive behaviors in juvenile psychopaths.

[From the paper] It is  important that the affective arousal deficit . . . cannot be explained by a lack of sensorimotor resonance [i.e., mirror neurons], as measured by mu wave suppression [this was an ERP study], which was present in a ll participants. This finding indicates that affective arousal is not mediated by the mirror neuron system.

2. “Empathy and alterity in cultural psychiatry” by Laurence Kirmayer (Ethos, 2008).

3. “Empathy and otherness: Humanistic and phenomenological approaches to psychotherapy of severe mental illness” by Elizabeth Pienkos and Louis Sass (Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, 2012).

4. Empathy in mental illness edited by Tom Farrow and Peter Woodruff (CUP, 2007).

5. “Zero degrees of empathy” by Simon Baron-Cohen, covering disorders of empathy (borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, narcissism) and genetic, endocrine, and social influences.


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