J Korean Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry.  2020 Jul;31(3):121-130. 10.5765/jkacap.200020.

Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Young Adolescents: an fMRI Study

  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Chungbuk National University Hospital, Cheongju, Korea
  • 2Department of Neuropsychiatry, College of Medicine, Chungbuk National University, Cheongju, Korea
  • 3Onyourhan Psychiatric Clinic, Cheongju, Korea
  • 4Department of Psychology, Chungbuk National University, Cheongju, Korea


We investigated the differences in cognitive and emotional empathic ability between adolescents and adults, and the differences of the brain activation during cognitive and emotional empathy tasks.
Adolescents (aged 13–15 years, n=14) and adults (aged 19–29 years, n=17) completed a range of empathic ability questionnaires and were scanned functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during both cognitive and emotional empathy task. Differences in empathic ability and brain activation between the groups were analyzed.
Both cognitive and emotional empathic ability were significantly lower in the adolescent compared to the adult group. Comparing the adolescent to the adult group showed that brain activation was significantly greater in the right transverse temporal gyrus (BA 41), right insula (BA 13), right superior parietal lobule (BA 7), right precentral gyrus (BA 4), and right thalamus whilst performing emotional empathy tasks. No brain regions showed significantly greater activation in the adolescent compared to the adult group while performing cognitive empathy task. In the adolescent group, scores of the Fantasy Subscale in the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which reflects cognitive empathic ability, negatively correlated with activity of right superior parietal lobule during emotional empathic situations (r=-0.739, p=0.006).
These results strongly suggest that adolescents possess lower cognitive and emotional empathic abilities than adults do and require compensatory hyperactivation of the brain regions associated with emotional empathy or embodiment in emotional empathic situation. Compensatory hyperactivation in the emotional empathy-related brain areas among adolescents are likely associated with their lower cognitive empathic ability.


Adolescent brain; Empathy; Cognitive empathy; Emotional empathy; Functional magnetic resonance imaging
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