Towards a neuroscience of empathy: Ontogeny, phylogeny, brain mechanisms, context and psychopathology

Cristina Gonzalez-Liencres, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, Martin Brüne

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Empathy allows individuals to share the affective states of others, predict others' actions, and stimulate prosocial behavior. Whilst the proximate mechanisms of empathy, modulated in part by neuropeptides such as oxytocin, control the ways we interact with our social environment, the ultimate causes seem to have arisen along with the mechanisms involved in mammalian parental care. The conceptual boundaries of empathy, however, have been blurred by definitional inaccuracies of mechanisms that can be regarded as phylogenetic precursors or physiological prerequisites for empathy, including mimicry and emotion contagion. Contextual factors such as early experiences with primary care-givers (attachment), current mood states and other environmental contingencies are capable of modulating empathy. Moreover, evidence suggests that there is also a "dark side" of empathy, namely envy and schadenfreude (gloating) that are elicited by social comparison, competition and ingroup-outgroup distinction. This review aims at clarifying some of the open definitional questions related to empathy, and emphasizing the need for considering contextual factors in the study of empathy in both normal and abnormal psychology.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1537-1548
Number of pages12
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number8
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • Brain mechanisms
  • Context
  • Empathy
  • Envy
  • Evolution
  • Oxytocin
  • Psychopathology
  • Schadenfreude

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Towards a neuroscience of empathy: Ontogeny, phylogeny, brain mechanisms, context and psychopathology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this