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How Empathy Became a Brain Function

A Neurophilosophical Case Study

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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: 01 March 2015

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  • Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences (PTSc) is a new peer-reviewed biannual journal which provides a platform for constructive and critical interactions between the natural sciences in all their varieties (from physics and biology to psychology, anthropology and social science) and the fields of contemporary philosophy and theology. It invites scholars, religious or non-religious, to participate in that endeavor. The journal provides the rare opportunity to examine together the truth claims found in theology, philosophy, and the sciences, as well as the methods found in each disciplines and the meanings derived from them. Each issue will have a topical focus.

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