Breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience: Highlighting influential research from the past 20 years
This series explores influential papers in cognitive neuroscience, as measured by the number of times they are cited each year. The papers featured are just a sampling of many important works in the field over the past 20 years. This is the second in the series. Read the first story here.
“I feel your pain.” That phrase took on a whole new meaning when scientists first were able to visualize how the brain processes someone else’s suffering. In a landmark paper in Science in 2004, Tania Singer and colleagues showed that some pain-sensitive parts of the brain are activated when we empathize with others who are in pain.
The researchers used fMRI to measure the neural responses of participants both when they experienced pain and when their loved one, present in the same room, experienced pain. They found that empathy activates the pain-related parts of the neural network associated with emotions but not sensorial experiences.
Nearly a decade after this work, researchers continue to learn more about empathy, including social factors that influence it, such as whether a person is part of your group or an outsider. They also have discovered a range of connections between empathy and various other emotions and senses.
Herself a twin, Singer was especially interested in understanding how people take their first-hand experiences and project them to better understand other people’s thoughts and feelings. In recent years, she has been particularly interested in the differences between empathy and compassion, and, specifically, whether it is possible to transform people’s empathetic reactions into compassionate action. As she explains, empathy recruits negative emotions in people, while compassion elicits positive feelings.
CNS talked with Singer, who is now at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, about the influence of the 2004 paper, her work exploring training people for compassion, and new avenues for social neuroscience, including the merging of neuroscience, economics, and psychology.
Singer: At the time of its appearance, it was one of the first cognitive neuroscience papers that reported about two people within the scanner environment instead of just focusing on a single brain. We had asked couples to come to our laboratory and scanned the female while she was empathizing with the suffering of her partner who was sitting next to her by the scanner. At that time, such an experimental set-up was extremely unusual as it was trying to capture a real-life social phenomena. Furthermore, studying the neuroscientific basis of emotions was still less common than studying cognitive processes such as memory or language. But researching the neuronal processes underlying vicarious emotions, that is emotions I feel for another person and which are not even my own, was extremely novel. Before I conducted the study, some people even predicted that I would find an “empty brain”. On a broader societal level, I think this was the beginning of a bigger change in the overall consciousness about the importance to move from an exaggerated egoism and individualism towards altruism and the notion of interdependence.
CNS: What has been some of the biggest developments in the field that stemmed from that paper? Can you give some examples?
Singer: I guess, most importantly, it introduced empathy research to the field of cognitive neuroscience. Some years later, we are already publishing meta-analyses summarizing the findings of many fMRI studies on empathy in multiple domains ranging from pain, affective touch, and disgust to taste and reward. These studies have been conducted in laboratories around the world, including Japan, India, Europe, and the United States. The sum of all these studies suggests a general neuronal mechanism for the human capacity to understand other people’s affective states and confirmed that we actually use cortical representations underlying the processing of our own first-hand emotional experiences to understand what another person is feeling. Soon after, the second phase of empathy research started identifying the factors which block and modulate our empathic brain responses when witnessing others’ suffering or the perceived fairness of others depending on whether these are “ingroup” or “outgroup” members. At the moment, we are trying to identify the difference between empathy and compassion and whether you can train these social emotions.
CNS: What has this body of research meant to the average person? And why is it important to understand empathy?
Singer: First, empathy research shows that in principle we are much more connected to others than we consciously are aware of. We represent the feelings and needs of others in terms of our own. We are in constant affective resonance with others. This is not only relevant for social interactions but also has implication for economic models. It questions several basic assumptions of our classical economic models. On the other hand, the second wave of empathy studies has shown that this natural capacity for empathic resonance can easily be blocked – not just in psychopaths – but in all of us: Simply because we think someone was unfair or is not belonging to “our tribe”. This leads us to our next question: Can we then train our capacity for empathy so that we can become more cooperative and pro-social? This has been the focus of the latest studies. And the answer is “yes, we can”. However, these studies have also shown that it is crucial to distinguish between empathy, which is in itself not necessarily a good thing, and compassion. When I empathize with the suffering of others, I feel the pain of others; I am suffering myself. This can become so intense that it produces empathic distress in me and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal. In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, we do not necessarily feel with their pain but we feel concern – a feeling of love and warmth – and we can develop a strong motivation to help the other.
The neural networks underlying the effects of empathy and compassion training are very different. Whereas the former increases negative emotions, the latter is associated with positive feelings of warmth and increased activation in brain networks associated with affiliation and reward.
This may have large implications for people working in care-giving professions, such as nurses, doctors, therapists, and even fire fighters. Teaching them to transform an initial empathic response when confronted with the deep suffering of their patients or clients into a compassionate stance could protect them from negative health consequences and burnout often associated with these jobs. At the same time, it could also help the patients, as compassion is not only rewarding for yourself but obviously good for others too.
CNS: How and why did you become interested in cognitive neuroscience and empathy?
Singer: First, I have a father who is a scientist and neuro-physiologist and because of this, I had an early connection to brain sciences. Then, I studied psychology and received my Ph.D. from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. My thesis was entirely focused on behavioral psychology and, after a while, I realized that I wanted to learn more about how the brain works as well. So I went to London to train to become a cognitive neuroscientist in addition to being a psychologist. More importantly, I became fascinated by social phenomena such as empathy and emotion contagion and wanted to understand social emotion and behavior better. Perhaps this interest was also triggered by the fact that I was born as an identical twin. I was practically born as a “WE” rather than an “I”.
CNS: What are a couple of the most exciting lines of empathy, and more broadly of social neuroscience, heading to the next 20 years?
Singer: One exciting new development is the merging of social neurosciences with two other relatively new fields: neuroeconomics and contemplative neurosciences.
Neuroeconomics is about understanding how people make decisions and not only financial decisions. If we start now to merge all our knowledge from social neuroscience, psychology, and neuroeconomics, we can begin working toward a new picture of human nature that is actually opposite to the old picture of the “homo economicus”. Instead of conceiving human beings as mostly self-interested, rational decision-makers with stable preferences and without insights about another person’s preferences, we learn now that humans are actually motivated agents capable of altruism and care, and are able to develop multiple different social preferences. These may not even be stable over time but rather dependent of your momentary motivational state and the environment. Such insights could have radical implications for the development of new macroeconomic models that aim at a new “caring economics.”
The second exciting avenue for future research lies in the study of the effects of mental training practices on health, brain, subjective well-being, and social behavior. In the last years, plasticity research, which used to focus on the trainability of cognitive skills such as memory or motor behavior, has now started to study and develop secular training programs aiming at increasing higher-level mental faculties, such as attention or compassion.
These secular training programs are often inspired by meditation practices from the East and, by consequence, this research integrates first-person with third-person approaches in a novel way. It sets out to understand how we can improve physical and psychological well-being by cultivating introspection and turning our focus towards our own mind.
The societal implication of introducing such science-based intervention programs into schools, as well as political, and economic institutions, could be a major step. As these multidisciplinary, large-scale, longitudinal studies are both time- and cost-intensive, I am indeed speaking about the next 20 years to come.
“Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain,” Tania Singer, Ben Seymour, John O’Doherty, Holger Kaube, Raymond J. Dolan, Chris D. Frith, Science 303, 1157 (2004).
Media contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz, CNS Public Information Officer,