Emotional empathy is crucial to understand how we respond to interpersonal positive or negative situations. In the present research, we aim at identifying the neural networks and the autonomic responsiveness underlying the human ability to perceive and empathize with others' emotions when positive (cooperative) or negative (uncooperative) interactions are observed. A multimethodological approach was adopted to elucidate the reciprocal interplay of autonomic (peripheral) and central (cortical) activities in empathic behavior. Electroencephalography (EEG, frequency band analysis) and hemodynamic (functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, fNIRS) activity were all recorded simultaneously with systemic skin conductance response (SCR) and heart rate (HR) measurements as potential biological markers of emotional empathy. Subjects were required to empathize in interpersonal interactions. As shown by fNIRS/EEG measures, negative situations elicited increased brain responses within the right prefrontal cortex (PFC), whereas positive situations elicited greater responses within the left PFC. Therefore, a relevant lateralization effect was induced by the specific valence (mainly for negative conditions) of the emotional interactions. Also, SCR was modulated by positive/negative conditions. Finally, EEG activity (mainly low-frequency theta and delta bands) intrinsically correlated with the cortical hemodynamic responsiveness, and they both predicted autonomic activity. The integrated central and autonomic measures better elucidated the significance of empathic behavior in interpersonal interactions.
- autonomic activity
- brain oscillations
- interpersonal empathy
- positive/negative interactions