Neural Basis of Empathy and Altruism

According to the perception-action model of empathy (Preston & de Waal, 2002), seeing another in pain automatically activates the per- ceiver’s own representations of the painful state, causing the perceiver to experience the target’s emotion. Here we review recent findings in cultural neuroscience that demonstrate cultural variation in the neural basis of social capacities underlying empathy and altruism, including the ability to recognize, share, and understand other people’s suffering.

Emotion Recognition

One social capacity critical to empathy and altruism is the ability to recognize others’ emotional states, particularly signals of suffering or pain. Culture affects how people prefer to experience, express, recognize, and regulate their emotions (Mesquita & Leu, 2007). East Asians prefer to experience low arousal relative to high arousal (Tsai, 2007) and are more likely to suppress their emotions relative to Westerners (Butler, Lee, & Gross, 2007). In addition, both East Asians and Westerners demonstrate cultural specificity in emotion recognition, whereby they show greater recognition for emotions expressed by their own cultural group members relative to members of other cultural groups (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002). Recent cultural neuroscience of emotion research has shown cultural specificity effects within a number of brain regions involved in emotion recognition. Moriguchi and colleagues (2005) found greater activation in the posterior cingulated, supplementary motor cortex, and amygdala in Caucasians, relative to Japanese who showed greater activity within the right inferior frontal, premotor cortex, and left insula when participants were asked to explicitly recognize emotions from the face. Chiao and colleagues (2008) examined neural responses in adults living in either the United States or Japan to facial displays of a fear. They found that across cultures, people exhibit greater bilateral amygdala response to fear faces expressed by own- relative to other-culture members (Chiao et al., 2008). Another recent neuroimaging study comparing neural responses during emotion recognition in Asians and Europeans found a significant negative correlation between duration of stay and amygdala response such that amygdala response during emotion recognition was higher in individuals who were recent immigrants to the region, suggesting that experience alters neural responses to emotional expressions (Dertnl, Habel, Robinson, Windischberger, Kryspin-Exner, Gur et al., 2009). Taken together, this research indicates that activity within the human amygdala is modulated by cultural group membership.

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