How the social brain experiences empathy, Part 1

I’m in Chicago at the “How the social brain experiences empathy” conference sponsored by the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.  I’ve developed an interest in the implications of cognitive science for the law: I’m currently co-teaching a seminar on “Religion, Spirituality, and Cognitive Science: Contemporary Establishment Clause Issues” with my colleague Stephanie Phillips, and I’m planning a seminar for next fall on Empathy and the Law.  Live blogging follows, so any errors and omissions are my own.

Survival of the Kindest: The Evolution of Empathy
Frans de Waal (Emory University)

Definition: The ability to understand [cognitive] and share [emotional] the feelings of another.

  • Top-down view: Understand other’s situation, put yourself mentally in their shoes.
  • Bottom-up view: Being in tune with the other in the moment.
  • Do animals have empathy? Top-down view: no; bottom-up view: yes.


  • Motor mirroring (yawning, self-scratching, etc.) common in many animals. Related to many forms of empathy.
  • Neonatal imitation: infant rhesus monkey imitates human making faces.
  • Neonatal contagion: wolf learning to howl.
  • With motor mirroring you have a shortcut to imitation; don’t need overlays of consciousness.
  • Male coalition: males apes & dolphins synchronize movements to establish dominance: Blair & Bush did the same thing.
  • Emotional contagion: reaction to emotional states of offspring.

Reconciliation has been studied in many species: repair mechanism for relationships that have value.

Consolation: where one individual goes to another to show sympathetic concern; chimps do it, as do humans.  Not occasionally: when there’s a fight in a chimp colony, consolation and reconciliation will occur consistently.

Thus apes are special; are able to adopt the perspective of another.  Don’t see this activity in monkeys.  Empirical evidence thus shows apes care about the welfare of others.  [How do we know they subjectively feel “care”? How do we know WE do?]

Elephants: consolation behavior is common.  Also recognize self in mirror.

Costly altruism?  Coalitions among chimps are common: if a female is attacked by a male, other females come over & protect her.  Some literature doubts this exists because it’s hard to measure.  Can’t ethically do experiments that put animals in danger (although they were done in the past).  (Video of elephants cooperating to rescue a calf stuck in mud; males use tusks to shovel out the calf, while females push the calf out of the mud.)

Russian doll model
Russian doll model

In biology & evolution, nothing is thrown out: everything is layered on earlier structures, like Russian dolls, from PAM (perception action model) to empathy.  Copying & empathy are related; for de Waal, they’re the same thing.  For more information, see The Age of Empathy.

You have to be skeptical about anthropomorphizing, though: audience member told of seeing elephants painting in Thailand, and how they turned around and “smiled” and were “proud” when they finished.  De Waal notes that Thai elephant handlers train their elephants to do all kinds of things.

Oxytocin and the Neurobiology of Empathy
Sue Carter (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Do males & females differ in empathy? If so, biology might explain that: oxytocin & endocrine context.

Oxytocin is routinely given to delivering mothers since the 1980s.

Most living organisms cannot reproduce or survive alone. Misleading to focus on the individual in studies.  Need to focus on relationships.

Positive social behaviors share neuroendocrine substrates, including oxytocin.

The biological prototype for sociality is the parent-child interaction, but is not limited to that.

Oxytocian is a neuropeptyde, related ot Vasopressin (differ in only two molecules). Both evolved from a gene that evolved before the split between vertebrates & invertebrates. It’s really old.

Males have more vasopressin (esp. in the lateral septum) in the brain than females. Comes from the extended amygdala.

The dependence of humans on oxytocin is best understood in the context of mammalian evolution. Helped allow the evolution of cognition.

Women who do not breast-feed are exposed to lower levels of oxytocin.  Lactation, mediated in part by oxytocin, may allow a new mother to better manage stress.  Have lower blood systolic blood pressure and heart rate than bottle-feeding women.

Lots of things cause release of oxytocin: birth, lactation, sexual behavior, parental behavior, touch & massage, rest & relaxation, but also chronic stress.

Oxytocin & vasopressin interact in some way to alter the capacity to show social behavior.  Oxytocin may facilitate approach & social behavior (through actions on sensory systems, central nervous system (CNS), autonomic emotional responses). In high concentrations, vasopressin may inhibit approach & cause avoidance or withdrawal. When given from outside as a treatment, effects of oxytocin & vasopressin may have very different effects in males & females.

Safety (reducing fear) allows social engagement; under conditions of threat, danger & defensive strategies are activated. The cocktail of oxytocin & vasopressin is needed to allow for sociality.

[I’m starting to get a little lost here with all the charts & graphics of how oxytocin & vasopressin “may” interact to do things & their opposite things.  Seems speculative and not solidly grounded.]

Increased encephalization allows some humans, & possibly other primates, to experience “emotional empathy.”  The degree to which “cognition” enters into empathy is difficult to say.

Human researchers have started giving oxytocin to people. Does oxytocin affect empathy? Some empirical evidence says yes; e.g., increasing ability to read emotions in subtle facial expressions of others.  Intranasal oxytocin increased “trust” as measured in a computer game.  Reduced amygdala activation to fearful faces (but possibly also to non-fearful stimuli). In women, however, intranasal oxytocin increased activity in response to fearful stimuli in the left amygdala. (Before you start thinking oxytocin is a cure for autism, remember that we don’t know anything about long-term effects, risks, downward negative feedback, etc.)


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