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Author reply: Empathy and the Brain: How We Can Make Progress
Henrik Walter
Emotion Review 2012 4: 22
DOI: 10.1177/1754073911421398
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EMR4110.1177/1754073911421398WalterEmotion Review

Author Reply

Empathy and the Brain: How We Can Make Progress

Emotion Review
Vol. 4, No. 1 (January 2012) 2223
The Author(s) 2012
ISSN 1754-0739
DOI: 10.1177/1754073911421398
er.sagepub.com

Henrik Walter
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Charit Universittsmedizin Berlin, Germany

Abstract
Neuroscientific research on empathy has made much progress recently.
How far can we get and how should we do it? Two different routes have
been suggested by Dziobek and Jacobs in their commentaries. The first is
becoming ecologically more valid by using real-life settings as stimuli. The
second is becoming more quantitative by specifying a neurocognitive model,
allowing more precise quantitative predictions. Although neither approaches
are mutually exclusive, I suggest that these two routes are in a certain
tension to each other. I suggest an additional third, more indirect way,
namely studying modulating factors of empathy like emotion regulation
which have until now been largely neglected in empathy research.

Keywords
affective neuroscience, emotion regulation, empathy, theory of mind

There is now a quite well-elaborated, more or less agreed-upon


concept of empathy used in social cognitive neuroscience
(Walter, 2012). In their commentaries to my article, Diziobek
(2012) and Jacobs (2012) have suggested two ways to make
further progress. The idea suggested by Dziobek is to investigate ecologically more valid empathy-relevant situations.
Indeed, many empathy studies have used very static stimuli
such as photos, pictures, simple verbal stories, or cartoons,
which are less rich compared to empathy-relevant situations
from real life, such as conversations and complex social interaction. Dziobek herself has contributed significantly to this
approach by developing ecologically valid instruments like the
Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition (MASC).
However, ecological validity in complex matters comes with a
cost. If we observe effects between conditions or groups, it is
often difficult to attribute them to a specific process involved in
the function in question as there are so many factors combined
in these complex stimuli. Furthermore, we might end up finding a neural correlate of complex stimulus material that is
related to very general functions involved in processing complex scenes. In contrast to the ecological approach, considerable

progress in cognitive neuroscience has always been made by


boiling down a specific question about a complex function to a
very simple, highly controllable and straightforwardly interpretable experimental design. This approach also recommends
itself with respect to the limited nature of our dependent variables in brain imaging.
Another approach of science in general and in cognitive
neuroscience in particular has been suggested by Jacobs (2012).
He argues that it would be desirable to move on from descriptive models to more quantitative models that make exact
predictions about the change in certain model parameters under
different settings. This is certainly true. Computational neuroscience even goes a step further by allowing the use of offline (simulation) experiments which then might inform further
experimental work in humans to test predictions generated
from simulations. However, this approach is particularly
useful for more basic neurocognitive functions that are easily
described with a limited set of clearly measurable dependent
variables. As a matter of fact, empathy is neither simple, nor,
as an affective state, easy to measure. Indeed, the problem
that we have no good or reliable indicator for affective experience as suchmakes it so difficult for affective neuroscience to
translate to quantifiable models without becoming too cognitive.
In fact, the idea of using more ecological stimulus material and
the idea of having a quantitative, precise prediction-generating
model do not go very well together, at least in the first place.
Nevertheless, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and
time will tell which of these approaches will advance our scientific understanding of empathy in the years to come. For the
time being it is already very helpful that at least a common concept of empathy has emerged and that there are established
paradigms and instruments for quantifying empathy. Starting
from this common ground I want to suggest a third way to study
the neural correlates of empathy more indirectly: by manipulating other cognitiveaffective processes and contextual factors
involved in empathy (see de Vignemont & Singer, 2006). For
example, conceptually it is clear that in order to not end up in

Corresponding author: Henrik Walter, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Division of Mind and Brain Research, Charit Universittsmedizin Berlin, Campus Mitte,
Charitplatz 1, D-10117 Berlin, Germany. Email: henrik.walter@charite.de

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Walter Reply to Commentaries 23

experiencing just personal distress but rather to be able to


empathize, subjects have to have a good capacity to regulate
their (isomorphic) emotions elicited in empathy contexts.
Emotion regulation has become a booming field of research
which allows to nicely quantify regulated and regulating structures of the brain (e.g., Erk et al., 2010; Walter et al., 2009). By
studying the modulation (emotion regulation) of the isomorphic
affective states and their neural correlates in controlled ways we
will better understand the nature of empathy (see Decety, 2011).
Because emotion regulation has already yielded a wealth of
quantitative data, this might be a way to get less descriptive and
more quantitative on the way towards a neurocognitive or, better,
neuroaffective model of empathy. Because individual differences and genetic dispositions are an important issue for
empathy, knowledge from imaging genetics about emotion
regulation (e.g., Schardt et al., 2010) can perhaps also better be
integrated in such a future model.
Note that I suggest neither that these three ways to progress are mutually exclusive, nor that they are the only ways.
There are many other approaches out there, for example,
investigating brain lesions, brain stimulation, children or patient
groups. Progress will be made on different routes being used by
people who are experts in their respective fields. Actually, I
predict that in some years we will have a new wealth of data
which will call for a more comprehensive model of empathy

that hopefully will also be able to integrate some of the insights


that the social sciences and humanities have gained.

References
Decety, J. (2011). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy.
Emotion Review, 3, 92108.
de Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: How, when and
why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 435441.
Dziobek, I. (2012). Towards a more ecologically valid assessment of
empathy. Emotion Review, 4, 1819.
Erk, S., Mikschl, A., Stier, S., Ciaramidaro, A., Gapp, V., Weber, B., &
Walter, H. (2010). Acute and sustained effects of cognitive emotion
regulation in major depression. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30,
15726 15734.
Jacobs, A. (2012). Comment on Walters Social cognitive neuroscience
of empathy: Concepts, circuits, and genes. Emotion Review, 4,
2021.
Schardt, D. M., Erk, S., Nsser, C., Nthen, M. M., Cichon, S., Rietschel, M.,
Walter, H. (2010). Volition diminishes genetically mediated amygdala
hyperreactivity. NeuroImage, 53, 943951.
Walter, H. (2012). Social cognitive neuroscience of empathy: Concepts,
circuits, and genes. Emotion Review, 4, 917.
Walter, H., Kalckreuth, A., Schardt, D., Stephan, A., Goschke, T., &
Erk, S. (2009). The temporal dynamics of voluntary emotion regulation:
Immediate and delayed neural aftereffects. PLoS ONE, 4, e6726. doi:
10.1371/journal.pone.0006726

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