The role of empathy in the neural responses to observed human social touch

Leehe Peled-Avron, Einat Levy-Gigi, Gal Richter-Levin, Nachshon Korem, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations

Abstract

One of the ways in which individuals convey feelings and thoughts to one another is through touch. Although the neural responses to felt and observed tactile stimuli between an inanimate object and a part of the human body have been vastly explored, the neural responses to observed human interaction involving touch are not well understood. Considering that the observation of social touch involves vicarious sharing of emotions, we hypothesized that levels of empathic traits modulate the neural responses to observed touch and focused on the attenuation in the mu\alpha rhythm (8–13Hz), a neural marker that has been related to sensorimotor resonance. Fifty-four participants observed photos depicting social touch, nonsocial touch, or no touch while their electroencephalography (EEG) activity was recorded. Results showed that interindividual differences in levels of empathic traits modulated both behavioral and electrophysiological responses to human social touch, such that highly empathic participants evaluated human social touch as inducing more pleasant emotions and exhibited greater mu suppression upon observation of human social touch compared to less empathic participants. Specifically, both the behavioral and the electrophysiological responses to observed social touch were predicted by levels of personal distress, a measure of emotional contagion. These findings indicate that the behavioral and electrophysiological responses to observed social touch are modulated by levels of empathy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)802-813
Number of pages12
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Volume16
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, Psychonomic Society, Inc.

Keywords

  • EEG
  • Empathy
  • Interpersonal touch
  • Mu rhythm
  • Somatosensory

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