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Affective and cognitive mechanisms of understanding others: Independence and interactions of empathy, compassion and theory of mind

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Kanske,  Philipp
Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Trautwein,  Mathis
Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Singer,  Tania
Department Social Neuroscience, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Kanske, P., Trautwein, M., & Singer, T. (2015). Affective and cognitive mechanisms of understanding others: Independence and interactions of empathy, compassion and theory of mind. Talk presented at Psychologie & Gehirn. Frankfurt am Main, Germany. 2015-06-04 - 2015-06-06.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0004-A251-9
Abstract
Social neuroscience has identified different neural networks, a more affective (empathy and compassion) and a more cognitive route (Theory of Mind (ToM)), to the understanding of others. While the anterior insula (AI) is critically involved when empathizing with the pain of another person, experiencing compassion for another’s suffering activates a different network including the ventral striatum. ToM tasks, in contrast, engage the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), temporal poles (TP) and medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). The separability and interrelations of these two capacities and their related neural networks is, however, little understood. We, therefore, developed a novel task, the EmpaToM. Participants are presented with naturalistic video stimuli in which people recount autobiographical episodes that are either emotional or neutral. Each video is followed by empathy and compassion ratings and questions about the content of the video that probe ToM. Emotional vs. neutral videos increased activity in bilateral AI, which parametrically modulated with subjective empathy ratings. Compassion ratings, in contrast, covaried with activity in the ventral striatum. ToM activated bilateral TPJ, TP and MPFC. These two networks interact during the online understanding of others. However, inter-individual differences in the activity of these networks were uncorrelated, suggesting some independence, such that strong empathizers are not (necessarily) good mentalizers. Separate training of these capacities within the longitudinal ReSource study has differential enhancing effects on ToM performance and compassion, providing some first evidence that we can induce plasticity in socio-affective and socio-cognitive capacities.