Lack of empathy following traumatic brain injury linked to reduced responsiveness to anger

Egocentric, self-centred, and insensitive to the needs of others: these social problems often arise in people with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and have been attributed in part to a loss of emotional empathy, the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of other people. Given that traumatic brain injuries are becoming more common, and resulting empathy deficits can have negative repercussions on social functioning and quality of life, it is increasingly important to understand the processes that shape emotional empathy. A new study has recently revealed evidence of a relationship between physiological responses to anger and a reduction of emotional empathy post-injury, as reported in the May 2011 issue of Cortex.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia, teamed up to investigate whether physiological responses to emotions correlate with emotional empathy in a group of adults with severe TBI and a group of healthy control participants. After determining the emotional empathy abilities of the participants by questionnaire, the researchers measured activation of their and , in response to happy and angry , using facial electromyography (EMG) and skin conductance. They found that the control group spontaneously mimicked the emotional facial expressions they saw, and also perspired more in response to . In contrast, those in the TBI group generally scored lower in emotional empathy and were less responsive, specifically to angry faces. Lack of emotional empathy was specifically found to be associated with reduced physiological responses to angry faces.

"The results of this study were the first to reveal that reduced emotional responsiveness observed after severe TBI is linked to changes in empathy in this population. The study also lends support to the conclusion that impaired emotional responsiveness - including facial mimicry and skin conductance - may be caused, at least in part, by dysfunction within the system responsible for emotional empathy", explains author Arielle De Sousa. "This has important implications for understanding the impaired social functioning and poor quality of interpersonal relationships commonly seen as a consequence of TBI, and may be key to comprehending and treating empathy deficits post-injury."

More information: The article is "Understanding deficits in empathy after traumatic brain injury: The role of affective responsivity" by Arielle de Sousa, Skye McDonald, Jacqueline Rushby, Sophie Li, Aneta Dimoska, and Charlotte James, and appears in Cortex, Volume 47, Issue 5 (May 2011). www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00109452

Related Stories

I feel your pain: Neural mechanisms of empathy

date Jan 28, 2009

Is it possible to share a pain that you observe in another but have never actually experienced yourself? A new study uses a sophisticated brain-imaging technique to try and answer this question. The research, published by ...

Hormone spray improves male sensitivity

date Apr 29, 2010

Many women have no doubt been waiting a long time for this: the neuropeptide oytocin enhances male empathy. This substance also increases sensitivity to so-called "social multipliers", such as approving or disapproving looks. ...

Recommended for you

How men and women see each other when online dating

date 45 minutes ago

In the world of online dating, nothing is as it seems. But that doesn't stop many of us from leaping to the wrong conclusions about people. A recent paper presented at the Annual Conference of the International ...

We trust kids to know what gender they are

date 1 hour ago

I will start by asking two questions: at what age did you know your gender, and do you think someone else had to tell you what it was? I'm director of mental health at a leading gender clinic in the US. Our clinic is a half-decade old – and in that short pe ...

Your smartphone could be good for your mental health

date 2 hours ago

When it comes to mental health, technologies such as smartphones and social media networks are almost always discussed in terms of the dangers they pose. Alongside concerns expressed in the media, some experts believe that technology has a role in the rising rates of mental health problems. However, there is ...

Why male suicides outnumber female

date 2 hours ago

Finally, Drummond had everything he'd ever dreamed of. He'd come a long way since he was a little boy, upset at his failure to get into the grammar school. That had been a great disappointment to his mother, ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.