Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Derek Mitchell

2nd Supervisor

Elizabeth Finger

Joint Supervisor


Empathy is crucial for successful social interactions and it is impaired in many devastating disorders. Empathy deficits are highly burdensome for affected individuals, caregivers, and significant others, and costly for society as a whole. However, empathy is thought to be a multifaceted construct, including cognitive empathy, affective sharing, and empathic concern components. These constituents may be linked to different behavioural outcomes and neurocognitive substrates, and presentation varies depending on the facets affected. Thus, there is a critical need to determine the behavioural and neurocognitive substrates of different components of empathic responding, and how these are affected in particular disorders.

The present work aimed to elucidate the nature of different components of empathy and how they vary as a function of clinical diagnoses and individual differences in subclinical traits, as well as their underlying functional neural mechanisms. Study I used the Multifaceted Empathy Test, a performance-based task tapping cognitive empathy, affective sharing, and empathic concern elicited by realistic emotional images, in patients with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD). This revealed a global cognitive empathy deficit, deficient affective sharing for negative experiences, and a generalized processing impairment for negative stimuli in bvFTD. In Study II, healthy adults completed the Multifaceted Empathy Test and questionnaire measures of autistic traits, coldhearted psychopathic traits, and trait anxiety. Coldhearted traits were found to disrupt affective sharing and empathic concern, whereas trait anxiety appeared to influence subjective affective experience via generalized arousal. Study III investigated the involvement of action-perception matching, simulation mechanisms in cognitive versus emotional empathy, using fMRI during cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and simulation network localizer tasks in healthy adults. Increased activation was observed in identified simulation regions during emotional versus cognitive empathy, providing evidence for greater involvement of simulation mechanisms in emotional empathy.

Taken together, this work suggests that cognitive empathy, and emotional empathy, including affective sharing and empathic concern, represent aspects of empathy that are distinguishable and differentially linked with certain patient populations, subclinical traits, and neurocognitive mechanisms. These findings are discussed with respect to the nature and conceptualization of empathy and its components, as well as implications for disorders featuring empathy dysfunction.