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Gray Matter Density May Differentiate an “Emotional” Brain From A Rational One

Last updated June 30, 2015

Scientists from Monash University and University of Queensland, Austalia and the University of Chicago, USA, have found physical differences in the brains of people whose response/s to other people’s feelings are emotional, when compared to individuals whose response/s involve rational thought.


Scientists from Monash University and University of Queensland, Austalia and the University of Chicago, USA, have found physical differences in the brains of people whose response/s to other people’s feelings are emotional, when compared to individuals whose response/s involve rational thought.

Humans use empathy in their daily lives: for communications with each other, building relationships and trying to understand others’ viewpoints. In the recent past, quite a few studies have tried to understand empathy, morality, fair-mindedness, etc. by looking at brain activity and chemistry. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is frequently used to understand brain activity.

As far as empathy is concerned, many studies have demarcated different regions of the brain that get activated with affective (associated with feelings, moods, etc.) and cognitive empathies. However, individual differences in brain structure correlating a person’s disposition were lacking.

The current study attempts to fill this gap in our understanding of the brain structure as it relates to the function of empathy. The research involved 176 participants who filled questionnaires on empathy. Additionally, the researchers used Voxel-Based Morphometry (VBM), which is a neuroimaging analysis technique that allows one to ascertain differences in brain anatomy. Using VBM, the scientists were able to assess the extent to which gray matter density could predict participants’ score (through questionnaires) in affective and cognitive empathy.

The results of the study show that:

  • People with high scores in emotional empathy had higher gray matter density in an area of the brain called the “insula,” which is found in the middle of the brain.
  • A higher gray matter density in the “midcingulate cortex” (an area of the corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) correlated with a high cognitive empathy score.
  • Cognitive and emotional empathy are associated with different areas of the brain.

The authors opine, “…these results provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different neural and structural correlates.”

The findings also raise questions. As the lead author, Dr. Eres tells Monash University News, “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.”

Additionally, it would be interesting to see if a person would react to a different kind of empathy under different situations: For example, if the situation involved a family member vs. a stranger. We at DoveMed hope that future research will address these questions.

Written by Mangala Sarkar, Ph.D.

Primary References:

Eres, R., Decety, J., Louis, W., & Molenberghs, P. (2015). Individual differences in local gray matter density are associated with differences in affective and cognitive empathy. NeuroImage, 117, 305-310.

http://monash.edu/news/show/emotional-brains-physically-different-to-rational-ones

DoveMed Resources:

Study Correlates Increased Gray Matter with High Levels of Moral Reasoning. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2015, from http://www.dovemed.com/current-medical-news/gray-matter-moral-reasoning/

Can a Person Be Made Less Prejudiced By Altering Brain Chemistry? (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2015, from http://www.dovemed.com/current-medical-news/person-altering-brain-chemistry/

Additional References:

Fan, Y., Duncan, N., Greck, M., & Northoff, G. (2011). Is there a core neural network in empathy? An fMRI based quantitative meta-analysis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 3(53), 903-911. 

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: June 30, 2015
Last updated: June 30, 2015