Greater involvement of action simulation mechanisms in emotional vs cognitive empathy
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
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Empathy is crucial for successful interpersonal interactions, and it is impaired in many psychiatric and neurological disorders. Action-perception matching, or action simulation mechanisms, has been suggested to facilitate empathy by supporting the simulation of perceived experience in others. However, this remains unclear, and the involvement of the action simulation circuit in cognitive empathy (the ability to adopt another's perspective) vs emotional empathy (the capacity to share and react affectively to another's emotional experience) has not been quantitatively compared. Presently, healthy adults completed a classic cognitive empathy task (false belief), an emotional empathy task and an action simulation button-pressing task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Conjunction analyses revealed common recruitment of the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), thought to be critical for action-perception matching, during both action simulation and emotional, but not cognitive, empathy. Furthermore, activation was significantly greater in action simulation regions in the left IFG during emotional vs cognitive empathy, and activity in this region was positively correlated with mean feeling ratings during the emotional empathy task. These findings provide evidence for greater involvement of action simulation mechanisms in emotional than cognitive empathy. Thus, the action simulation circuit may be an important target for delineating the pathophysiology of disorders featuring emotional empathy impairments.
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