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The ability to accurately infer others’ mental states from facial expressions is important for optimal social functioning and is fundamentally impaired in social cognitive disorders such as autism. While pharmacologic interventions have shown promise for enhancing empathic accuracy, little is known about the effects of behavioral interventions on empathic accuracy and related brain activity. This study employed a randomized, controlled and longitudinal design to investigate the effect of a secularized analytical compassion meditation program, cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT), on empathic accuracy. Twenty-one healthy participants received functional MRI scans while completing an empathic accuracy task, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), both prior to and after completion of either CBCT or a health discussion control group. Upon completion of the study interventions, participants randomized to CBCT and were significantly more likely than control subjects to have increased scores on the RMET and increased neural activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC). Moreover, changes in dmPFC and IFG activity from baseline to the post-intervention assessment were associated with changes in empathic accuracy. These findings suggest that CBCT may hold promise as a behavioral intervention for enhancing empathic accuracy and the neurobiology supporting it.
Difficulties in social cognition are well recognized in individuals with autism spectrum conditions (henceforth ‘autism’). Here we focus on one crucial aspect of social cognition: the ability to empathize with the feelings of another. In contrast to theory of mind, a capacity that has often been observed to be impaired in individuals with autism, much less is known about the capacity of individuals with autism for affect sharing. Based on previous data suggesting that empathy deficits in autism are a function of interoceptive deficits related to alexithymia, we aimed to investigate empathic brain responses in autistic and control participants with high and low degrees of alexithymia. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we measured empathic brain responses with an ‘empathy for pain’ paradigm assessing empathic brain responses in a real-life social setting that does not rely on attention to, or recognition of, facial affect cues. Confirming previous findings, empathic brain responses to the suffering of others were associated with increased activation in left anterior insula and the strength of this signal was predictive of the degree of alexithymia in both autistic and control groups but did not vary as a function of group. Importantly, there was no difference in the degree of empathy between autistic and control groups after accounting for alexithymia. These findings suggest that empathy deficits observed in autism may be due to the large comorbidity between alexithymic traits and autism, rather than representing a necessary feature of the social impairments in autism.
Attention to internal bodily sensations is a core feature of mindfulness meditation. Previous studies have not detected differences in interoceptive accuracy between meditators and nonmeditators on heartbeat detection and perception tasks. We compared differences in respiratory interoceptive accuracy between meditators and nonmeditators in the ability to detect and discriminate respiratory resistive loads and sustain accurate perception of respiratory tidal volume during nondistracted and distracted conditions. Groups did not differ in overall performance on the detection and discrimination tasks; however, meditators were more accurate in discriminating the resistive load with the lowest ceiling effect. Meditators were also more accurate during the nondistracted tracking task at a lag time of 1 s following the breath. Results provide initial support for the notion that meditators have greater respiratory interoceptive accuracy compared to nonmeditators.
Recent research suggests that lower-class individuals favor explanations of personal and political outcomes that are oriented to features of the external environment. We extended this work by testing the hypothesis that, as a result, individuals of a lower social class are more empathically accurate in judging the emotions of other people. In three studies, lower-class individuals (compared with upper-class individuals) received higher scores on a test of empathic accuracy (Study 1), judged the emotions of an interaction partner more accurately (Study 2), and made more accurate inferences about emotion from static images of muscle movements in the eyes (Study 3). Moreover, the association between social class and empathic accuracy was explained by the tendency for lower-class individuals to explain social events in terms of features of the external environment. The implications of class-based patterns in empathic accuracy for well-being and relationship outcomes are discussed.