Types of empathy: Feeling versus thinking about others’ emotions

What is the difference between affective and cognitive empathy?

Of all the tools in the emotional intelligence toolbox, empathy is especially valuable in today’s world. As we continue to learn more about how much human decision-making and behavior is informed — if not driven — by emotion, being able to understand how someone else feels and why can be critical to the success of any endeavor that involves working with or for other people. Yet science is still trying to figure out what empathy is and how it works.

In their study of affective and cognitive empathy, researchers found a correlation between each type of empathy and development in a particular area of the brain. These findings support the idea that the range of behaviors we typically associate with empathy may fall into distinct categories rather than exist on a single spectrum. At the same time, if affective empathy primarily involves perceptual processing (physical perception) and cognitive empathy primarily involves conceptual processing (mental perception), these two types of empathy may also indicate different levels and directionality of processing emotionally relevant information.

The study looked at whether people who have more brain cells in certain areas of the brain are better at different types of empathy.

“People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client”…

The results showed that people with high scores for affective empathy had greater grey matter density in the insula, a region found right in the ‘middle’ of the brain. Those who scored higher for cognitive empathy had greater density in the midcingulate cortex — an area above the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

“Taken together, these results provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different neural and structural correlates,” the study said.

Emotional brains ‘physically different’ from rational ones | ScienceDaily

Individual differences in local gray matter density are associated with differences in affective and cognitive empathy | Robert Eres • Jean Decety • Winnifred R. Louis • Pascal Molenberghs