Empathy circuit

consciousnessThe Empathy Circuit

Chapter in ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’

Simon Baron-Cohen

Baron-Cohen identifies at least ten related brain areas involved in empathy, which he refers to as the ’empathy circuit’. The medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is highlighted as a hub for social information, and the area in which our own perspective on events can be compared to that of others. The dorsal part of this region is involved in thinking about other people’s thoughts and feelings in conjunction with our own. In contrast, the ventral part of this region is more concerned with our own thoughts. Damasio has suggested that this region can store a record of the emotional valence of prior causes of action, positive for actions that turned out to be rewarding and negative for actions there were punishing. It has been shown that damage to this area of the brain can reduce empathy.

The ventral medial prefrontal overlaps with the orbitofrontal cortex also identified as part of the empathy circuit. Patients with orbitofrontal damage may have difficulty with judging social behaviour, which is seen as indicative of a lack of empathy. These observations about the orbitofrontal might be seen as linking empathy to the functioning of subjective consciousness, since it has been shown the activation in the orbitofrontal can correlate to appreciation of the subjective experience rather than strength of signal.

The orbitofrontal is close to the frontal operculum, which may be involved in assessing the intentions of others, and this in turn is close to the inferior frontal gyrus involved in the visual recognition of emotions. This connects to the inferior parietal lobe, part of the mirror neuron system, which reacts when observing actions in both ourselves and others. Further to this, the middle cingulate cortex is involved in the experience of pain in oneself and in others, while the anterior insula is connected to empathy via awareness of the body.

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