, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 201-207
Date: 30 Jun 2011

Responding Empathically: A Question of Heart, not a Question of Skin

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Empathy entails the capacities to resonate with another person’s emotions, understand his/her thoughts and feelings, separate our own thoughts and emotions from those of the observed and responding with the appropriate prosocial and helpful behavior. While there is abundant research on the neurobiological mechanisms of some components of empathy (e.g., emotional contagion), few studies have considered the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the empathic response. The present study explores psychophysiological correlates (skin conductance level and the interbeat interval) as a function of the empathic response while participants watch and respond to actors portraying emotionally laden vignettes. Forty undergraduate psychology students were each presented with 40 emotional vignettes of positive or negative valence and asked to choose among three different empathic responses while their electrodermal and cardiac responses were measured. Overall, the study shows that higher levels of additive empathy are associated with increased cardiac activity (i.e., decreased Interbeat Interval) but not electrodermal activity.