Journal article

The Cognitive And Neural Time Course Of Empathy And Sympathy: An Electrical Neuroimaging Study On Self-Other Interaction

Although extensively investigated in sociocognitive neuroscience, empathy is difficult to study. The first difficulty originates in its multifaceted nature. According to the multidimensional model, empathy combines emotional, automatic (simulation), cognitive (mentalizing) and regulatory (executive functions) processes. Substantial functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data demonstrated that co-activations in the mirror neuron system (MNS) and mentalizing network (MENT) sustain this co-recruitment of so-called first-and second-person-like processes. Because of the poor temporal resolution of fMRI techniques, we currently lack evidence about the precise timing of the MNS-MENT combination. An important challenge is, thus, to disentangle how MNS and MENT dynamically work together along time in empathy. Moreover, the role of the executive functions in the MNS-MENT combination time course is still unknown. Second, empathy - feeling into - is closely related to sympathy - feeling with - and both phenomena are often conflated in experimental studies on intersubjectivity. In this electrical neuroimaging (EEG) pilot-study, we tested whether the egocentered vs. heterocentered visuo-spatial mechanisms respectively associated with sympathy and empathy differentially modulate the dynamic combination of the MNS-MENT activations in their respective neural time course. For that, we employed our newly developed behavioral paradigm assessing the visuospatial - but not emotional - features of empathy and sympathy. Using a data-driven approach, we report that empathy and sympathy are underlied by sequential activations in the MNS from the insula to the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) between 63 ms and 424 ms. However, at 333-424 ms, empathy triggered greater co-activations in the right IFG and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) (executive functions). Linking together our present and prior (Thirioux et al., 2010) findings from the same dataset, we suggest that this greater recruitment of the right dlPFC monitors the shift from egocentered and first-person-like mechanisms in the MNS to heterocentered and second-person-like mechanisms in the left temporo-parietal junction within the MENT, i.e., reflecting the onset of perspective-change processes in the neural time course of empathy. Contrasting with sympathy, this recruitment of the executive functions could modulate the output end of the mirroring processing in the premotor and sensorimotor cortices. (C) 2014 IBRO. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


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