Empathy’s neural mechanism
Posted on Aug 14, 2012 in News
“Theory of Mind” (ToM) is a concept of the cognitive sciences that defines our ability to understand the intentions of others. Comprehending language requires reading in between the lines of spoken word. In comparison, ToM is a science that focuses on our adeptness at deciphering the meanings and intentions of conversation. ToM incorporates verbal and nonverbal elements of communication, from body language to voice inflections.
Recently, the neural network of ToM responsible for interpreting the full meaning behind a single remark has been identified. By monitoring previously associated ToM brain lobes with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers at the Université Claude Bernard-Lyon found that specific neural networks increase in activity when someone is exposed to ironic statements. Generally, irony implies the opposite meaning of what is said and is a linguistic task that requires neural mechanisms of ToM to process. The discovery of the ToM associated neurons implies that neuroscience is getting even closer to identifying the complex mechanisms by which we think and thus live.
On another note, testosterone has been linked with a reduction in the empathy experienced by an individual, including the ability to accurately judge what another person is thinking. A study was conducted in which testosterone was administered only to women to determine if it had any effect on their level of compassion. The findings were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” The testosterone administration was found to reduce the capability to interpret another’s thoughts.
Higher levels of testosterone were linked to poorer mind reading abilities. This may explain why women are on average more sympathetic than men.
The research findings lead me to wonder if the neural networks belonging to the ToM concept could have further implications in the study of sex differentiation.
If a woman’s brain chemistry influences them to be more empathetic and therefore more accurate at interpreting another’s thoughts, I predict that there would be increased activity in the neurons attributed to Theory of Mind cognitive science.