This is fascinating.
Empathy is a very important trait to have, as it allows us to create trust and gives us insights into the thoughts and feelings of others. One definition of empathy is the ability to identify and understand another person's situation, their feelings, and motivations. When you empathize, you put yourself in someone else's shoes or you see things from someone else's point of view.
Being empathetic isn't just helpful as a way to profile the personalities in our world; when we understand why or how others are reacting to certain situations, it gives us helpful insight toward how we deal with people.
There are different kinds of empathy and various ways our brains react. In a study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers from Monash University found that there are physical differences in the brains of people who respond emotionally to other people's feelings (affective empathy), compared to those who respond more rationally (cognitive empathy).
Lead researcher Robert Eres was able to identify differences in grey matter density with cognitive and affective empathy, as the study looked at whether people who have more brain cells in certain areas of the brain are better at different types of empathy.
"People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational. For example, a clinical psychologist counseling a client," Eres said.
The researchers used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to study the extent to which grey matter density in 176 subjects predicted their scores on tests that rated their levels for cognitive empathy compared to affective empathy. Before being subjected to the imaging procedure, the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire that determined their levels of empathy.
The results of the experiments showed that people who scored high for affective empathy had greater grey matter density in the insula, a region found right in the middle of the brain. Those who scored higher for cognitive empathy had greater density in the midcingulate cortex, an area above the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain.
These findings show that empathy may be represented by brain structures and cell populations. This recent development of visible empathy raises more questions, such as whether people could train themselves to become more empathetic, and if those areas of the brain that correlated to those specific types of empathy would become larger, and would people lose the ability to empathize if it wasn't used enough.
"In the future, we want to investigate causation by testing whether training people on empathy-related tasks can lead to changes in these brain structures, and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as a result of a stroke, for example, can lead to empathy impairments," said Eres.