Short Review: F. de Vignemont, T. Singer, The empathic brain: how, when and why?, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 10, No. 10. (October 2006), pp. 435-441.
1) Empathy is not a purely automatic reaction to exposure to emotional state of others. Authors propose a new contextual approach. According to it, empathic brain responses are modified by “modulatory” factors.
2) Empathy plays two different roles: (1) an epistemological role and (2) a social role. In the first case, empathy provides information about the future actions of other people and important environmental properties. In the second case, empathy is understood as a source of the motivation for cooperative and prosocial behavior.
Authors question the assumption that the empathy should be understood as an automatic mechanism which become active every time when we observe others displaying emotion. They start from the presentation of various definitions of empathy, and chose one which is more narrow than others (there is empathy if: (1) one is in an affective state; (2) this state is isomorphic to another person’s affective state; (3) this state is elicited by the observation or imagination of another person’s affective state; (4) one knows that the other person is the source of one’s own affective state). Empathy as understood is a subject to contextual appraisal and modulation. This modulation needn’t necessary be a function of our conscious thought. Contrary to this intuition, modification of our empathic responses can be also fast and implicit. Therefore, we have two separate routs of modification our empathic response. Variables which can have impact on magnitude of our empathic response are – for example – as follows: age, personality, empathizer’s past experience, situational context (when we are exposed to more than one, and different form each other, emotional states of others). Also, as authors point out, people more easier empathize with primary emotions (fear, sadness) than with secondary emotions (jealously). Apart from describing ways in which empathy works, authors also propose an evolutionary answer for the question: why empathy evolved? It fulfills two major roles: (1) epistemological, which allows us to predict subsequent behavior of other members of society, and (2) social, because empathy is one of the source of the motivation for cooperative behavior. Authors, don’t claim however that possession of empathic brain responses is condition sine qua non for having morality.
Empathy as understood as in the paper becomes a very interesting mechanism, crucial for our social communications, and cooperative behaviors. Argument against understanding brain empathic responses in the purely automatic manner fits well in more broader way of argumentation which is present in contemporary neuroscience and philosophy.