Social neuroscientists study the neural mechanisms underlying our capacity to understand our own and other people’s feelings. Despite neuroscientists’ advances in plasticity research and empathy research, little is known about cortical and behavioural plasticity in emotion understanding and empathy. Clearly, in today’s world, acquiring the capacity to effectively enhance empathy and prosocial behaviour is of the utmost importance. In the present project, we will investigate the malleability of empathy via training. We will adopt a multimethod and interdisciplinary approach, combining techniques and paradigms from the fields of neuroscience, (bio-)psychology, and economics. Studies 1-3 will provide a cross-sectional look at structural and functional differences in the brains of individuals scoring high vs. low on empathy, of those with pathological deficits in empathy (psychopaths, alexithymics), and of individuals starting vs. finishing a three-year training program in Carl Rogers’ person-centred therapy, which aims to increase emotional capacity and empathy. Study 4 will examine brain plasticity using real-time fMRI: Participants will learn to self-regulate brain activity through the use of immediate feedback from emotion-related brain areas while practicing certain mental techniques. In Study 5, a small-scale longitudinal study, healthy individuals will receive extensive training by professional instructors in either empathy- or memory-enhancing techniques previously developed in the East and the West. We will measure training-related changes in brain structure and functioning, in hormone levels, and in behaviour. Evidence for emotional brain plasticity in adults and children would not only have important implications for the implementation of scientifically validated, effective training programs for schools and for economic and political organizations, but also for the treatment of the marked social deficits in autistic and psychopathic populations.
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