Rational and emotional brains differ physically: Study highlights associations between affective and cognitive empathy and gray matter density.

Researchers at the Monash University have discovered that the brains of people who respond rationally to situations and feelings are physically different from the brains of people who respond emotionally.

The research on topic ” Rational And Emotional Part of Brain Differ Physically ” was led by Robert Eres from the University’s School of Psychological Sciences, who highlighted the associations between affective and cognitive empathy and gray matter density. The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

Researchers investigated whether people who had more brain cells in specific parts of the brain were better than expressing various forms of empathy as compared to others. “People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client,” Mr. Eres explained.

Voxel-based morphometry (VBM) was used to observe the extent to which the gray matter density of 176 participants foretold their scores on tests conducted to rate levels of cognitive empathy and emotional (affective) empathy. Results revealed that participants who scored higher for emotional empathy had a higher gray matter density in their insula (region exactly in the center of the brain). On the contrary, participants scoring higher for cognitive empathy had a higher gray matter density in their midcingulate cortex (region above the corpus callosum that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain).

“Taken together, these results provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different neural and structural correlates,” concludes the study.

Moreover, these results raise additional questions regarding whether certain forms of empathy could be increased via training and how would this effect the size of the gray matter. Queries about whether people could lose their capacity to feel empathy if they didn’t use it much have also come to light.

“Every day people use empathy with, and without, their knowledge to navigate the social world,” Mr. Eres elaborated. “We use it for communication, to build relationships, and consolidate our understanding of others. In the future we want to investigate causation by testing whether training people on empathy related tasks can lead to changes in these brain structures and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as a result of a stroke for example, can lead to empathy impairments.”