It is possible to determine a person’s ability to feel empathy by studying their brain activity whilst resting rather than when engaged in activity.
That’s the finding of a recent study by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles.
Typically, clinicians assess empathy by using questionnaires or psychological assessments, but this study offers another option for those who may have difficulty with questionnaires, like people with a severe mental illness or autism.
“We have been studying the neural mechanisms for empathy for many years. Over the years we realized that two sets of areas that are generally believed to be important for two different aspects of empathy, the more emotional and the more reflective aspects of empathy, were communicating with each other all the time," Dr. Marco Iacoboni, senior author of the study and professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA told Theravive.
"Even when we only have a brief emotional response to the pain of others the brain areas supporting the more reflective forms of empathy are somewhat engaged. And even when we are thoroughly deliberating on how to help someone in a tough and complex predicament, the brain areas supporting our more emotional empathic responses are engaged.”
“So, we thought: could it be that these two sets of areas are also ‘talking to each other’ at rest, and that these communications at rest are somehow shaping the empathy of our participants? If true, this is important because it allows us to use a simple yet reliable form of assessing the empathy levels of other people. This is especially important for mental health conditions in which restoring empathy may greatly benefit the daily functioning of these patients,” he said.
Empathy is often considered a hallmark of mental health and wellbeing. Empathy assists in understanding the inner feelings and behaviours of other people, as well as promoting social and cooperative behaviour by showing a concern for others. Being able to measure empathy is important, but isn’t always easy.
“Empathy is a cornerstone of social cognition, the function that allows us to expertly navigate social environments, interact with other people, establish relationships, and so forth. Empathy dysfunction leads to poor quality of life and wellbeing. This is why it is very useful to be able to measure it. Yet, empathy is a very complex function, and we still don’t have simple ways of measuring it reliably,” Iacoboni said.
In undertaking the study, Iacoboni and colleagues enlisted 58 people between the ages of 18 and 35. Their resting brain activity data was collected through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI can map and measure brain activity by looking at small changes in blood flow. Participants in the study were instructed to allow their minds to wander freely whilst keeping their eyes still.
The participants then completed questionnaires to measure their empathy. They were asked to rank whether statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” were reflective of their character on a scale from not well to very well.
The researchers attempted to predict how empathic the participants were by using the brain scans. They used artificial intelligence to identify patterns in the data. They found that the fMRI scans were able to help the researchers accurately predict how empathic the participants were.
The researchers are hopeful their findings could assist health care providers in assessing empathy in people with autism or schizophrenia, who may otherwise struggle with expressing their emotions, or filling out a questionnaire.
“Mental health conditions that may benefit from restoring empathy do need a reliable brain metric that can track empathy and its changes. An intervention to restore empathy may be effective but may require time to affect behavior. Yet, brain changes may tell us whether pursuing that intervention is worthwhile or not,” Iacoboni said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.