Project Awarded: $30,000
The proposed project will investigate the development of empathy, broadly defined as the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy underlies many important human social interactions, from parent-child bonding to complex altruistic behaviors, yet the question of how humans come to understand others’ feelings and mental states remains a subject of debate in both philosophy and developmental psychology. Prior work on empathy development has largely used behavioral or introspective methods, which fall short in disentangling the affective and cognitive components of empathy and in elucidating how they interact. We will use neuroscientific methods to test prominent theories of empathy development by directly measuring neural activity in, and functional connectivity between, regions associated with affective and cognitive mentalizing. Our project advances our understanding of the developmental of empathy through two aims: 1) Identify the common and distinct neural systems underlying the processing of one’s own versus others’ affective experiences across the course of typical development; and 2) investigate how neural processes associated with cognitive mentalizing contribute to affective empathy across the course of typical development. We will collect functional magnetic resonance imaging data from young children (ages 4 to 7), older children (ages 10 to 13), and adults (ages 18 to 35) while they recall how they personally felt when experiencing affectively positive or negative events, and while they imagine how another person would feel experiencing those same events. This approach allows us to directly compare the degree of neural similarity in processing one’s own versus another’s emotions, and determine how this neural similarity changes across development. Participants will also complete a standard Theory of Mind localizer task to independently identify neural regions associated with cognitive mentalizing. This will allow us to investigate how functional connectivity between cognitive mentalizing regions and the neural regions identified in the emotion-processing task changes across development. This project bridges neuroscience, developmental psychology, and philosophy to understand how the “empathic brain” develops. This will, in turn, pave the way for future work investigating how different components of empathy come together to motivate prosocial behavior, how empathy may go awry in atypical populations, and how empathy may be selectively extended towards members of different social groups.