The neuroscience of empathy: progress, pitfalls and promise

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 22 November 2013

This article has been updated

Abstract

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.

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Figure 1: Three major facets of empathy.
Figure 2: Neuroscientific approaches to studying experience sharing and mentalizing, and the brain regions that are associated with each.

Change history

  • 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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Acknowledgements

Writing of this paper was supported by a Templeton Positive Neuroscience Award (to J.Z.) and National Institute on Drug Abuse Grant 1R01DA022541-01 (to K.O.).

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Correspondence to Jamil Zaki or Kevin N Ochsner.

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Zaki, J., Ochsner, K. The neuroscience of empathy: progress, pitfalls and promise. Nat Neurosci 15, 675–680 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3085

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