Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Empathy in The Social Brain

Humans are social animals. While it is of cardinal importance for us to understanding what other people do and feel, we still lack an understanding of how our brain achieves this function. Research on social perception has focused so far on cognitive processes. Here we propose to investigate an alternative account: 'shared circuits'. Shared circuits are brain areas involved when we ourselves do an action, feel an emotion or sense a sensation AND when we observe or listen to someone else perform the same actions, express the same emotions and experience the same sensations. Such shared circuits reflect an automatic transformation of what other people do and feel into the neural representation of our own actions, emotions and sensations. In our project, using fMRI we propose to investigate the role of the parietal and premotor areas involved in the execution of actions during the perception of the actions of others; the role of the somatosensory cortices during the perception of other people being touched; and the role of emotional structures (e.g. amygdala and insula) during the observation of the emotional facial expressions of others. The emphasis of the work will be to investigate the idea that a single mechanism ? shared circuits ? could give valuable insights into all three domains. Such a unifying principle for social cognition would provide a powerful grip onto the neural basis of social perception and would encourage a very fruitful integration of fields of research (actions, emotions and sensations) that have developed in isolation. We will use these findings to search for the neural basis of psychiatric disorders by comparing the activity of shared circuits in patients with clear deficits in social perception (psychopathic, schizophrenic, autistic and social phobic subjects) with that in healthy control subjects.

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