Here’s a slightly technical article about different types of empathy being tied to different regions of the brain. In fact, there are at least two types of empathy, Cognitive Empathy and Affective Empathy. Cognitive Empathy is, simply put, being able to put yourself in someone's shoes. This is the type of empathy we experience when we feel for fictional characters in a book or movie. In contrast, Affective Empathy, also called Emotional Empathy, is the ability to respond emotionally to another's mental state. It is the sympathy and compassion we feel for others as we see or hear their suffering. A good example is how infants become distressed in response to others' distress.
Recent research used a fancy new brain imaging technique called “voxel-based morphometry” to view the density of gray matter in different regions of the brain. A study of 176 participants found that Cognitive Empathy was associated with the “midcingulate cortex” and that Affective Empathy is associated with the “insular cortex.” These results, linking individual areas of the brain with different types of empathy, are exciting in themselves, but the next step will be particularly exciting – researching whether damage to these brain structures impairs empathy and whether brain training could improve an individual’s ability to empathize with others.
This science may be of interest to us anxious folks as I’ve previously written about a different research group that found a connection between social anxiety and increased levels of Cognitive Empathy versus their non-anxious counterparts. Go science!