The sociopath amongst us: the neural basis of empathy disorders

What is this research about?

Emotional empathy is basic to healthy human interactions.  Empathy can be dramatically disrupted following brain lesions leading to conditions similar to sociopathy where patients may be cognitively intact but fail to attend to, identify, or sympathise with the emotional state of others.  We do not understand much about the complex brain networks that allow us to experience emotional empathy although it is clear that when people are being empathic, they tend to share the emotion of the person they are observing. The question is, why?  This sharing of the same emotion could provide useful feedback to help understand the emotional state of others. But exactly how this happens is contested. There are three theories. 

  • The first is based on emotional contagion theory, and predicts that the empathic reaction is a primitive response, like alarm spreading through a flock of animals, and that this change in arousal is a useful cue to identify what is going on. 
  • The second is based on facial feedback theory and predicts that there is a very specific mimicry reaction, whereby we mimic the expression of another, and it is this that causes us to have an empathic shared experience.
  • The third based on conceptual processing theory, predicts that we automatically process many levels of information about emotions in others and that the closer we identify with them, the stronger the simulation becomes (emotional contagion and subjective experience).   

We have several studies, led by Professor Skye McDonald, underway to try to tease out these different explanations.  We are focused on examining both normal performance and also comparing people with traumatic brain injuries (who often report problems with empathy) to normal adults to try to understand the underpinning mechanisms.  This approach is very valuable and is one that Dr Katie Osborne Crowley took during her PhD to examine the neural correlates of social disinhibition.

Other academics or researchers working on this project:

Backward masking: In this study, people watch emotional faces that are flashed up very rapidly and then masked by another image so they are not conscious of seeing them. We are interested to determine whether there is an emotional response (change in arousal) that occurs outside conscious awareness. Research fellow, Dr Jacqueline Rushby is leading this project along with research assistant Frances DeBlasio and PhD student Emma Kornfeld.

Body feedback: In this study we are interested in whether people experience changes to arousal when they take up an emotional (e.g. angry) posture and whether people who have brain injuries demonstrate normal or disrupted arousal when they do this task. This project is being lead by post-doctoral fellow Katie Osborne Crowley.

Emo-stroop task: In this study also lead by Dr Osborne Crowley, we are interested to determine whetrher having an incongruent emnotional word (e.g. Angry) on an emotional face (e.g. a happy face) disrupts processing of the face.

Spontaneous mimicry:  In this study we are interested in whether people tend to mimic people they are familiar with more strongly than strangers and whether people with brain injuries perform normally on this task.  We are using electrodes attached to facial muscles to detect slight facial movement. Katie Osborne Crowley is also leading this study.

The mirror neuron system and empathy: One explanation for empathy is that it is mediated by a brain network of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons have special properties where they fire not only when a person completes an action (like picking up a cup) but also when watching someone else complete the same action. It is not clear whether they also fire when watching another persons emotional expression. In this research PhD student Emma Kornfeld is using electroencephalography (EEG) which involves sensors arranged across the scalp to pick up electrical activity from the brain in order to investigate features of the mirro neuron system that are relevant to empathy.

Grants awarded:

ARC Discovery Project 150100226: The sociopath amongst us: the neural basis of empathy disorders (McDonald & Rushby) 2015-2018

Recent publications related to this research:

Osborne-Crowley, K. and McDonald, S. (In press) A review of social disinhibition after traumatic brain injury, Journal of Neuropsychology (Accepted 12 Sep 16)

Osborne-Crowley, K., McDonald, S. (In press) Hyposmia, not emotion perception, predicts social disinhibition after severe traumatic brain injury, Neuropsychology (Accepted 29/3/16)

Osborne-Crowley, K., McDonald, S., & Rushby, J. A. (2016). Role of Reversal Learning Impairment in Social Disinhibition following Severe Traumatic Brain Injury. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 22(3), 303-313. doi:10.1017/S1355617715001277

137. Osborne-Crowley, K., McDonald, S., & Francis, H. (2016). Development of an observational measure of social disinhibition after traumatic brain injury. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 38(3), 341-353. doi:10.1080/13803395.2015.1115824

Dethier, M. Blairy, S., Rosenberg, H. & McDonald, S. (2013) Deficits in processing feedback from emotional behaviours following severe TBI. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society 19 (4) pp. 367-379. DOI: 10.1017/S1355617712001555

De Sousa, A., McDonald, S. & Rushby, J. (2012) Changes in emotional empathy, affective responsivity and behaviour following severe traumatic brain injury. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology,34 (6), 606-623.

McDonald, S., Rushby, J., Li, S, de Sousa, A., Dimoska, A. James, C.M., Tate, R. & Togher, L. (2011) The influence of attention and arousal on emotion perception in people with severe Traumatic Brain Injury. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 82, 124-131. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2011.01.014

Recent media about this research:


Skye McDonald's Lab

Moving Ahead - Centre of Research Excellence in Brain Recovery