Empathy Deficits Seen in Body's Response to Angry FacesA link between a person’s lack of emotional empathy after brain injury and his or her physiological response to anger has been documented by researchers from the University of New South Wales. 

It is well known that social problems, including egocentric behavior and insensitivity to the needs of others, often occur in people with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).  These behaviors have been attributed in part to a loss of emotional empathy—the ability to recognize and understand the emotions of other people.

As traumatic brain injuries become more common, researchers believe it is especially important to understand the processes that create emotional empathy.  Empathy deficits result in negative consequences in social functioning and quality of life.

For the study, researchers set out to investigate whether physiological responses to emotions are connected to emotional empathy in a group of adults with severe TBI and a group of healthy control participants. Participants filled out a questionnaire designed to determine their emotional empathy abilities.

Using electromyography (EMG) and skin conductance, researchers then analyzed participants’ facial muscle and sweat gland activity while they viewed happy and angry facial expressions.

The team discovered that the control group spontaneously mimicked the emotional facial expressions they saw and also perspired more while looking at angry faces. In contrast, those with TBI scored lower overall in emotional empathy and were less responsive, specifically to angry faces. In fact, lack of emotional empathy was found linked to the reduced physiological response to angry faces.

“The results of this study were the first to reveal that reduced emotional responsiveness observed after severe TBI is linked to changes in empathy in this population. The study also lends support to the conclusion that impaired emotional responsiveness — including facial mimicry and skin conductance — may be caused, at least in part, by dysfunction within the system responsible for emotional empathy,” said study author and doctoral candidate Arielle DeSousa.

“This has important implications for understanding the impaired social functioning and poor quality of interpersonal relationships commonly seen as a consequence of TBI, and may be key to comprehending and treating empathy deficits post-injury.”

The study is reported in the May 2011 issue of Elsevier’s Cortex.

Source: University of New South Wales