How Empathy Became a Brain Function
A Neurophilosophical Case Study
Empathy is a topic of great relevance in current psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines. Scholars recently emphasized the possible role of a lack of empathy in antisocial behavior associated with psychopathy. At the beginning of this paper, common conceptions of empathy, particularly cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as psychopathy are summarized. Subsequently, recent attempts to demonstrate empathic engagement in neuro-imaging experiments are analyzed with respect to new operational definitions of empathy proposed by neuroscientists. This demonstrates how concepts and experimental settings may change when empathy becomes understood as a brain function. A central critique is related to experimentally establishing the presence of not just any emotion, but emotional isomorphy between a putatively empathic witness and another person in an emotion-inducing situation, such as required by emotional empathy. Finally, a recent experiment suggesting that psychopaths can be empathic if they are instructed to do so is discussed in more detail. Its interpretation has significant relevance for forensic and legal practice, such as treatment, confinement, and punishment decisions. The critical analysis developed here concludes that such practical applications may be premature.
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Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: 2015-03-01
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