(Dewar 2008)

Empathy and the brain
Gwen Dewar

"Can empathy be taught?

Animal studies and brain scan research might make us wonder if feeling empathy is a purely automatic process.

But, as noted above, empathy is really a package of abilities, and there is overwhelming evidence that empathy and empathic concern can be shaped by experience and culture.

On the negative side, experiments suggest that exposure to media violence can desensitize us, blunting the brain's response to second-hand pain (Guo et al 2013). It's also pretty clear that people downgrade the pain they perceive in victims when those victims are

  • strangers (Meyer et al 2013)
  • members of another race or outgroup (Xu et al 2009; Hein et al 2010)
  • or individuals marked by social stigma (Decety et al 2010)."

  • References: 

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    Decety J, Bartal IB, Uzefovsky F, and Knafo-Noam A. 2016. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 371(1686). 

    Decety J, Echols S, and Correll J. 2010. The blame game: the effect of responsibility and social stigma on empathy for pain.J Cogn Neurosci. 22(5):985-97.

    Decety J, Michalska K, and Akitsuki Y. 2008a. Who caused the pain? An fMRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children. 46(11):2607-14

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    Langford DJ, Crager SE, Shehzad Z, Smith SB, Sotocinal SG, Levenstadt JS, Chanda ML, Levitin DJ, and Mogil JS. 2006. Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice. Science. 312(5782):1967-70.

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    Masserman JH. Wechkin S, and Terris W. 1964. “Altruistic” behavior in rhesus monkeys. American Journal of Psychiatry 121: 584-585.

    Meyer ML, Masten CL, Ma Y, Wang C, Shi Z, Eisenberger NI, and Han S. 2013. Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 8(4):446-54.

    Michael J, Sandberg K, Skewes J, Wolf T, Blicher J, Overgaard M, and Frith CD. 2014. Continuous Theta-Burst Stimulation Demonstrates a Causal Role of Premotor Homunculus in Action Understanding. Psychological Science February 18, 2014 0956797613520608(epub ahead of print).

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    Sturm VE, Rosen HJ, Allison S, Miller BL, and Levenson RW. 2006. Self-conscious emotion deficits in frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Brain 129: 2508-2516.

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    Xu X, Zuo X, Wang X, Han S. 2009. Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. J Neurosci. 29(26):8525-9