Neurobiological Correlates of the Attitude Toward Human Empathy

Claudio Gentili, Ioana Alina Cristea, Emiliano Ricciardi, Cristina Costescu, Daniel David, Pietro Pietrini


Abstract: Over the last decade, integrated philosophical and neuroscientific studies of empathy have been steadily growing, because of the pivotal role that empathy plays in social cognition and ethics, as well as in the understanding of human behavior both under physiological conditions and in the presence of mental disorders. The umbrella concept of empathy embraces multi-faceted characteristics, including affective and cognitive processes, such as so-called emotional contagion and concern and perspective-taking. In this paper, we review the state-of-the-art of knowledge about the neurobiology of empathy. Specifically, we examine studies regarding empathy for pain, emotional imitation and expression and their alterations in psychopathological conditions. We also consider studies on the theory of mind (ToM) and the mirror neuron system (MNS). Finally, we propose measures of brain resting state activity as a potential neurobiological marker of proneness to be empathic.

Keywords: Empathy; Mirror Neurons; Theory of Mind; Mental Disorders; Psychopathy


Correlati neurobiologici della disposizione all’empatia umana

Riasssunto: Nell’ultimo decennio è cresciuto il numero delle indagini sull’empatia condotte integrando la prospettiva filosofica e quella neuroscientifica, in ragione del ruolo cardine svolto dall’empatia nella cognizione sociale e nell’etica, come pure nella comprensione del comportamento umano dal punto di vista delle condizioni fisiologiche e in presenza di disturbi mentali. La nozione di empatia funge da ombrello concettuale sotto cui ricadono caratteristiche multiformi, compresi i processi affettivi e cognitivi, come il cosiddetto contagio emotivo e l’assunzione di ruolo e di prospettiva. In questo lavoro intendiamo offrire una rassegna dello stato dell’arte delle conoscenze sulla neurobiologia dell’empatia. In particolare prenderemo in esame gli studi che vertono sull’empatia per il dolore, l’imitazione emotiva e dell’espressione e le loro alterazioni in condizioni psicopatologiche. Considereremo inoltre studi sulla teoria della mente (ToM) e sul sistema dei neuroni specchio (MNS). In sede conclusiva intendiamo proporre delle misure dell’attività cerebrale in condizioni di riposo come potenziale marcatore neurobiologico della propensione a empatizzare.

Parole chiave: Empatia; Neuroni specchio; Teoria della mente; Disturbi mentali; Psicopatia

Parole chiave

empathy; neural activity; mirror neurons; theory of mind; mental disorders; psychopathy; ethics, behavior

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