Social neuroscience

The neuroscience of empathy: progress, pitfalls and promise

Journal name:
Nature Neuroscience
Year published:
Published online
Corrected online


The last decade has witnessed enormous growth in the neuroscience of empathy. Here, we survey research in this domain with an eye toward evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. First, we take stock of the notable progress made by early research in characterizing the neural systems supporting two empathic sub-processes: sharing others' internal states and explicitly considering those states. Second, we describe methodological and conceptual pitfalls into which this work has sometimes fallen, which can limit its validity. These include the use of relatively artificial stimuli that differ qualitatively from the social cues people typically encounter and a lack of focus on the relationship between brain activity and social behavior. Finally, we describe current research trends that are overcoming these pitfalls through simple but important adjustments in focus, and the future promise of empathy research if these trends continue and expand.

At a glance


  1. Three major facets of empathy.
    Figure 1: Three major facets of empathy.

    For decades, behavioral research has examined each of these processes and developed theories about the nature of and relationships between each one. By contrast, the lion's share of neuroscience research in empathy has focused on two empathic processes: the tendency to take on, resonate with, or 'share' the emotions of others (experience sharing) and the ability to explicitly reason and draw inferences about their mental states (mentalizing). A third facet, the prosocial motivation to help others as a result of using one or both of the other facets to share and/or cognitively understand the emotions they are experiencing (prosocial concern), has begun receiving increasing neuroscientific attention in the last few years. Each of these empathic processes has also been described using other terms, some of which are listed here.

  2. Neuroscientific approaches to studying experience sharing and mentalizing, and the brain regions that are associated with each.
    Figure 2: Neuroscientific approaches to studying experience sharing and mentalizing, and the brain regions that are associated with each.

    (a) The experimental logic underlying studies of experience sharing. The blue circle represents brain regions engaged by direct, first-person experience of an affective response, motor intention or other internal state. The yellow circle represents regions engaged by third-person observation of someone else experiencing the same kind of internal state. To the extent that a region demonstrates neural resonance—common engagement by first- and third-person experience (green overlap)—it is described as supporting a perceiver's vicarious experience of a target's state (regions demonstrating such properties are highlighted in green in c). (b) Studies of mentalizing typically ask participants to make judgments about targets' beliefs, thoughts, intentions and/or feelings, as depicted in highly stylized social cues, including vignettes (top left), posed facial expressions (right), or even more isolated nonverbal cues, such as target eye gaze (bottom left). Regions engaged by such tasks (blue in c) are described as contributing to perceivers' ability to mentalize. (c) Brain regions associated with experience sharing and mentalizing. IPL, inferior parietal lobule; TPJ, temporoparietal junction; pSTS, posterior superior temporal sulcus; TP, temporal ole; AI, anterior insula; PMC, premotor cortex; PCC, posterior cingulate cortex; ACC, anterior cingulate cortex; MPFC, medial prefrontal cortex.

Change history

Corrected online 30 April 2012
In the version of this article initially published, the middle initial of author Kevin N. Ochsner was omitted. The error has been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions of the article.


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  1. Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

    • Jamil Zaki
  2. Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Kevin N Ochsner

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