Common Neural Correlates of Empathy and Worry when Processing Fearful Human Faces
Lindsay Knight1, Teodora Stoica1, Farah Naaz1, Nicholas Fogleman1, Brendan Depue1; 1University of Louisville
Empathy is the ability to understand and share an emotional experience with another person. This increased emotional awareness/sensitivity may also be related to increased worry, particularly when empathizing with individuals in distressing situations. However, the relationship between empathy and worry has not been characterized in terms of the underlying neural correlates that may support these convergent responses. We therefore conducted an fMRI study (n=49) in which participants viewed and rated fearful (F) and neutral (N) human faces. Additionally, questionnaires measuring empathy (TEQ), worry (PSWQ) and rumination (RRS) were administered. Behaviorally, higher empathy predicted higher worry. Neuroimaging regression of TEQ scores revealed that empathy was positively related to activity of the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), as well as functional connectivity from the TPJ to bilateral amygdala for F>N faces. Additionally, increased worry (PSWQ) was positively related to medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) activity for N>F faces, suggesting carry-over and continued processing of the fearful faces. To further characterize the relationship between empathy and worry, a median split of the TEQ and PSWQ indicated that both higher empathy and worry were related to higher total rumination. Neuroimaging group analyses of the median split showed that when processing fearful faces, lower empathy and worry both related to increased activation of top-down attentional regions. Together, this suggests that in response to fearful faces, higher empathy and worry both correspond to decreased top-down attentional control, coupled with increased activation of and communication with regions supporting emotion recognition, facial processing and mentalizing states of the self and others.
Topic Area: EMOTION & SOCIAL: Emotional responding