A model explaining how empathy and perspective taking are constructed by the brain has been developed by researchers1. Numerous studies have been conducted that examine empathy and perspective taking (also known as “theory of mind”) as a whole. However, what constitutes the core of both competencies and where in the brain their bases lie has not yet been clarified.

Both of these abilities are processed in the brain by a main network specialised in empathy or changing perspective, which is activated in every social situation. But, depending on the situation, it also involves additional networks,

says research group leader Philipp Kanske.

Flexible Reactions

If we read the thoughts and feelings of others, for example, from their eyes, other additional regions are involved than if we deduce them from their actions or from a narrative. The brain is then able to flexibly react to individual requirements.

For empathy, a main network that can recognise acutely significant situations, for example, by processing fear, works together with additional specialised regions, for example, for face or speech recognition. When taking another person’s perspective, in turn, the regions that are also used for remembering the past or fantasizing about the future, i.e., for thoughts that deal with things that cannot be observed at the moment, are active as the core network. Here too, additional brain regions are switched on in each concrete situation.

This study provides support for the hypothesis that understanding others’ mental states can be described by a multilevel model of hierarchical structure, similar to models in intelligence and personality research.

Feelings And Thoughts

The researchers have also found out that particularly complex social problems require a combination of empathy and a change of perspective.

People who are highly competent socially seem to view the other person in both ways - on the basis of feelings and on the basis of thoughts. In their judgement, they then find the right balance between the two.

Our analysis also shows, however, that a lack of one of the two social skills can also mean that not this skill as a whole is limited. It may be that only a certain factor is affected, such as understanding facial expressions or speech melody,

adds Kanske. A single test is therefore not sufficient to certify a person’s lack of social skills. Rather, there must be a series of tests to actually assess them as having little empathy, or as being unable to take the other person’s point of view.

The scientists investigated these relationships by a meta-analysis of neuroimaging data from 4,207 participants. They identified, on the one hand, commonalities in the MRI pattern of the 188 individual studies examined when the participants used empathy or perspective taking. This allowed the localisation of the core regions in the brain for each of the two social skills.

However, results also indicated how the MRI patterns differed depending on the specific task and, therefore, which additional brain regions were used.

  1. Matthias Schurz, Joaquim Radua, Matthias G. Tholen, Lara Maliske, Daniel S. Margulies, Rogier B. Mars, Jerome Sallet, Philipp Kanske. Toward A Hierarchical Model Of Social Cognition: A Neuroimaging Meta-Analysis And Integrative Review Of Empathy And Theory Of Mind. Psychological Bulletin, 2020; DOI: 10.1037/bul0000303 ↩︎

For future updates, subscribe via Newsletter here or Twitter