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Volume 6 (2006), Pages 1146-1163
Review Article

Human Empathy Through the Lens of Social Neuroscience

Department of Psychology Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

Received 19 June 2006; Revised 2 September 2006; Accepted 6 September 2006

Academic Editor: Michael Posner

Copyright © 2006 Jean Decety and Claus Lamm.


Empathy is the ability to experience and understand what others feel without confusion between oneself and others. Knowing what someone else is feeling plays a fundamental role in interpersonal interactions. In this paper, we articulate evidence from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and argue that empathy involves both emotion sharing (bottom-up information processing) and executive control to regulate and modulate this experience (top-down information processing), underpinned by specific and interacting neural systems. Furthermore, awareness of a distinction between the experiences of the self and others constitutes a crucial aspect of empathy. We discuss data from recent behavioral and functional neuroimaging studies with an emphasis on the perception of pain in others, and highlight the role of different neural mechanisms that underpin the experience of empathy, including emotion sharing, perspective taking, and emotion regulation.