Affective and cognitive empathy are two sides of the same coin

It is generally useful to dissect phenomena we are trying to investigate and understand. This dissection is also didactically useful. It generally does help the practice of teaching. However, at some point the practice of splitting a phenomenon or process in its subcomponents can get in the way of a deeper understanding. This is indeed a problem we face now with regard to empathy. While empathy is an umbrella term that encompasses many different forms of behavior and mental states, intuitively it does make sense to differentiate between two main types: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. These two forms of empathy corresponds well to the classical psychological dichotomy between type 1 and type 2 process. Type 1 processes being rather automatic, pre-reflective, stimulus-driven and inflexible, while type 2 processes are effortful, slow, deliberate, but flexible. A classical example of emotional empathy is the case of emotional ‘contagion’. Here, emotions spread between interacting people pretty much like viruses, in a pre-reflective, semi-automatic form. On the other hand, cognitive empathy requires a much more effortful process of ‘seeing’ things from the perspective of someone else, of adopting the point of view of another person, of reasoning about the motives that may lead someone else to feel and think as she/he does. These two main types of empathy have been well described in the psychological literature and have also inspired a number of recent neuroscience investigations. The neuroscience of empathy seems at first sight to agree with the psychological differentiation between emotional and cognitive empathy. Indeed, a survey of this literature shows that largely segregated neural systems seem associated with emotional and cognitive empathy. Yet, this dichotomy in psychology and neuroscience is probably just an illusion. Our seemingly rational and controlled empathic and prosocial decisions are likely influenced by pre-reflective, rather automatic emotional processes. On the other hand, pre-reflective emotions are likely continuously kept in check by cognitive control mechanisms typically used for cognitive empathy. In other words, the dichotomy between type 1 and type 2 psychological processes in empathy is probably better captured by the idea of continuous interactions between a bottom up (roughly corresponding to emotional empathy) and a top down (roughly corresponding to cognitive empathy) processing stream. These continuous interactions between bottom up and top down empathic processes are required by the continuous interactions between the seemingly segregated neural systems for emotional and cognitive empathy. Indeed, these neural systems are heavily interconnected, and even when we are facing situations that seemingly call only for one form of empathy, the continuous interactions between neural systems for both types of empathy - mediated by brain connections - call into play both our emotional and cognitive capacity to empathize with others.

Keynote Marco Iacoboni