In Search of Neurological Underpinnings of Empathy

  • Mohammadreza Hojat


  • During the long evolution history, the human brain has evolved to understand other person’s state of mind, feelings, perspectives, and intentions. Such an understanding has survival value and facilitates empathic relationships.

  • Evidence suggests that there exists a neurophysiobehavioral substructure in human beings that serves as a precursor and facilitator for understanding others, evident by a newborn’s reactive crying, inborn capacity for mimicry and imitation, physiological synchronicity in interpersonal interactions, perception–action coupling, propensity to understand other’s state of mind reflected in the theory of mind, and findings of a new line of research on the mirror neuron system.

  • Empirical findings from brain imaging studies, brain lesion research, empathy deficiency in neurological disorders (e.g., autism, Asperger’s syndrome, alexithymia), and pain research suggest that certain brain areas can be implicated in forming or failing to form empathic connection.

  • A search for neurological underpinnings of empathy is highly desirable for better understanding of neurological factors that contribute to the development or otherwise to the arrest of the capacity for empathy. Outcomes of such research will have important educational as well as medical implications.

  • From brain imaging research, it can be speculated that certain cortical areas of the brain (e.g., region for cognitive processing in the medial prefrontal cortex, dorsolateral, and mirror neuron region in the premotor areas) could be implicated in cognitive empathic responses.

  • Findings also suggest that the regions for emotional processing, the orbitofrontal cortex and older structures of the brain such as the limbic system, and specifically areas known as the pain matrix (e.g., amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate cortex) could be implicated in emotional empathic reactions. However, these speculations await further experimental verification.


Neurological underpinning Neuroanatomy Neuron cell assembly Ideomotor principle Perception–action Mirror neuron system Neurological roots Right hemisphere Neurological impairment Lesion studies Autism Alexithymia Empathy deficit disorders Pain research 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mohammadreza Hojat
    • 1
  1. 1.Sidney Kimmel Medical College Thomas Jefferson UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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