What are Empathy and Perspective-Taking Made of?

What are Empathy and Perspective-Taking Made of?

By Jim Windell

           We know that empathy, being able to feel for another’s emotions, is an important social skill. And an essential aspect of empathy is being able to take the perspective of others. If you can take the perspective of someone else, you are able to see things from their point of view. However, if you lack empathy, you may have difficulty making friends or having a close relationship with others.

           But, are empathy and perspective-taking part of one skill or ability? Or are they two different skills? And do you either have these social skills or not? Also, is there a part of the brain that is responsible for perspective-taking and empathy?

           These are questions that psychological research has not been able to explain. Furthermore, research has not clarified exactly what empathy is and what precisely helps us to understand others.          

           However, recently, Philipp Kanske, former MPI CBS research group leader and currently professor at the TU Dresden, together with Matthias Schurz from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and an international team of researchers, developed a comprehensive explanatory model.

           "Both of these abilities are processed in the brain by a 'main network' specialised in empathy or changing perspective, which is activated in every social situation. But, depending on the situation, it also involves additional networks," Kanske explains. Kanske, Schurze and others just published the results of their research in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

           They found that if you read the thoughts and feelings of others from their eyes, other additional regions are involved than if you deduce them from their actions or from a narrative. For empathy, they believe that a main network that can recognize acutely significant situations works together with additional specialized regions. When changing perspective, the regions that are also used for remembering the past or fantasizing about the future, are active as the core network. Here too, additional brain regions are switched on in each concrete situation.

           Through their analyses, the researchers have also found out that particularly complex social problems require a combination of empathy and a change of perspective. People who are particularly competent socially seem to view the other person in both ways – on the basis of feelings and on the basis of thoughts.

           "Our analysis also shows, however, that a lack of one of the two social skills can also mean that not this skill as a whole is limited. It may be that only a certain factor is affected, such as understanding facial expressions or speech melody," adds Kanske. A single test is therefore not sufficient to certify a person's lack of social skills. Rather, there must be a series of tests to actually assess them as having little empathy, or as being unable to take the other person's point of view.

           Kanske and Schurze and their associates investigated these relationships by means of a large-scale meta-analysis. They identified commonalities in the MRI pattern of 188 individual studies which examined when the participants used empathy or perspective taking. This allowed the localization of the core regions in the brain for each of the two social skills. However, results also indicated how the MRI patterns differed depending on the specific task and, therefore, which additional brain regions were used.

           In summary, these researchers suggest that in everyday life there are always social situations that require these two important abilities. However, they each require a combination of different individual subordinate skills. However, the brain can adapt in a flexible way to make the necessary shifts to allow both abilities – empathy and perspective taking – to help out.

          To read the original article, go to:

          Matthias Schurz, Joaquim Radua, Matthias G. Tholen, Lara Maliske, Daniel S. Margulies, Rogier B. Mars, Jerome Sallet, & Philipp Kanske. Toward a hierarchical model of social cognition: A neuroimaging meta-analysis and integrative review of empathy and theory of mind.Psychological Bulletin, 2020; DOI: 10.1037/bul0000303

Share this post:

Comments on "What are Empathy and Perspective-Taking Made of?"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment