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How learning shapes the empathic brain


Hein, Grit; Engelmann, Jan B; Vollberg, Marius C; Tobler, Philippe N (2016). How learning shapes the empathic brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(1):80-85.

Abstract

Deficits in empathy enhance conflicts and human suffering. Thus, it is crucial to understand how empathy can be learned and how learning experiences shape empathy-related processes in the human brain. As a model of empathy deficits, we used the well-established suppression of empathy-related brain responses for the suffering of out-groups and tested whether and how out-group empathy is boosted by a learning intervention. During this intervention, participants received costly help equally often from an out-group member (experimental group) or an in-group member (control group). We show that receiving help from an out-group member elicits a classical learning signal (prediction error) in the anterior insular cortex. This signal in turn predicts a subsequent increase of empathy for a different out-group member (generalization). The enhancement of empathy-related insula responses by the neural prediction error signal was mediated by an establishment of positive emotions toward the out-group member. Finally, we show that surprisingly few positive learning experiences are sufficient to increase empathy. Our results specify the neural and psychological mechanisms through which learning interacts with empathy, and thus provide a neurobiological account for the plasticity of empathic reactions.

Abstract

Deficits in empathy enhance conflicts and human suffering. Thus, it is crucial to understand how empathy can be learned and how learning experiences shape empathy-related processes in the human brain. As a model of empathy deficits, we used the well-established suppression of empathy-related brain responses for the suffering of out-groups and tested whether and how out-group empathy is boosted by a learning intervention. During this intervention, participants received costly help equally often from an out-group member (experimental group) or an in-group member (control group). We show that receiving help from an out-group member elicits a classical learning signal (prediction error) in the anterior insular cortex. This signal in turn predicts a subsequent increase of empathy for a different out-group member (generalization). The enhancement of empathy-related insula responses by the neural prediction error signal was mediated by an establishment of positive emotions toward the out-group member. Finally, we show that surprisingly few positive learning experiences are sufficient to increase empathy. Our results specify the neural and psychological mechanisms through which learning interacts with empathy, and thus provide a neurobiological account for the plasticity of empathic reactions.

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3 citations in Web of Science®
4 citations in Scopus®
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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:03 Faculty of Economics > Department of Economics
Dewey Decimal Classification:330 Economics
Language:English
Date:5 January 2016
Deposited On:01 Feb 2016 15:40
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 19:56
Publisher:National Academy of Sciences
ISSN:0027-8424
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1514539112

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