How do we make sense of others' expressions of emotion? Why are some of us better at it than others? Why do people with Autism Spectrum Conditions show a deficit in recognising expressions of emotion from other people? Is there a genetic underpinning to these abilities?
Empathy and Emotion
Empathy is the lens through which we view emotions in others. The highly empathic can sense others' emotions automatically, while those with lower empathy (as well as people with Autism Spectrum Conditions) are often marked by a deficit in picking up socio-emotional cues from other people. Empathy exists in a continuum across the population, and our research here targets the following questions:
a) how does empathy influence the perception of emotions in others and in ourselves?
b) what are the neural and behavioural processes underlying empathy?
Genetics of Empathy and Emotion Perception
The experience and perception of emotional states is a primary building block for social behaviour. It is therefore of immense theoretical interest to uncover the molecular bedrock of these ancient instincts. While there is a large body of animal literature on the molecular underpinnings of social-emotional behaviour, work on humans is comparatively recent, and has been limited to correlational studies of genetic variability with behavioural and neural measures. Our work seeks to expand these frontiers , studying how genetic polymorphisms relate to individual differences in emotion perception and empathy.
Autism Spectrum Conditions represent a cluster of symptoms that include a deficit in recognition of social and emotional cues from others. One increasingly popular approach is to study each component of this symptomatic cluster as a continuum, treating it as an endophenotype. Our research probes the functional and structural neuroanatomy of the autistic brain, and how it relates to the observed symptomatology in the socio-emotional domain.