“Feelings of empathy are virtues we want to cultivate personally and in society,” says first author Yoni Ashar (@YoniAshar), a graduate student in the lab of Tor D. Wager (@torwager), professor of neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Understanding these emotions could open the doors to increasing empathy and compassion in personal relationships and on a broader societal level.”
Ashar has firsthand experience with empathic distress at home. When his toddlers start crying and fussing, sometimes he gets upset, too. “I’m mirroring them,” he says. “But I don’t need to meet them where they are. I can show compassion, or empathic care, instead.”
To study empathy, the researchers recruited 66 adults to sit in a brain scanner while listening to 24 true short stories of human distress. For instance, in one story, a young drug addict finds help at a boarding school and later is able to help others recover from addiction. Previous studies of empathy examined brain activity in response to static images flashed on a screen. “We took a naturalistic experimental approach that more closely resembles how we encounter the suffering of others in our daily lives,” says Ashar.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers recorded brain activity patterns as subjects listened to the stories. The subjects heard the stories a second time outside the scanner, this time rating their feelings of distress and care over time as the narratives unfolded. The researchers then mapped the feelings to the patterns.