Neurobiology of empathy and prosocial behavior: evolutionary precursors, neural mechanisms, and interventions

Empathy and prosocial behavior are cornerstones of well being and mental health. Understanding the evolutionary basis and neurobiological mechanisms of empathy and prosocial behavior can help inform interventions that aim at increasing well being and prosociality.


This class will be divided in three parts.

The first part will summarize behavioral and neural evolutionary precursors of empathy and prosociality.

The second part will review the human cognitive neuroscience literature that investigates neural systems and connectivity associated with empathy and prosocial behavior in the healthy brain and in mental health disorders.

The last part will explore recent developments in the cognitive neuroscience of empathy that suggests it is possible to modulate empathic predispositions with non invasive neuromodulation techniques. This last part will also discuss ethical issues associated with neuromodulation and cognitive enhancement.




Part 1

Behavioral evolutionary precursors of empathy

Neural mechanisms of empathy in non human primates: mirror neurons

The mirror neuron system studied with single cell recordings and brain imaging

Part 2

Neural markers of mirroring and emotional contagion in the human brain

Neural systems for perspective taking


Prosocial behavior and its neural correlates

Empathy: how reliable are self reports?

Altered brain responses in psychiatric populations

Part 3

 Techniques for non invasive neuromodulation: TMS and tDCS

Neuromodulation of empathy and prosocial behavior

Implications for mental health and ethics


1. Describe plausible neurobiological evolutionary precursors of empathy

2. Define the neural systems associated with empathy and prosocial behavior

3. Explore novel models of brain-behavior relationships in empathy and prosocial behavior

4. Define non invasive neuromodulation and its potential role in prosociality

5. Describe the breakdown of empathy, social cognition and prosociality in mental health disorders


Recommended literature
Marco Iacoboni. Mirroring Peop