Project analysed the biological underpinnings of empathy in couples, including the electrodermal and cardiac activity as well as cortisol level, and the pattern of brain activation. These studies are relevant to “help understand the adaptative functioning of couples, something crucial considering the harmful consequences of situations of domestic violence”, says researcher Joana Coutinho.
The main innovation of this study was the use of “real” stimuli to analyse the neural basis of empathy since most of the paradigms used by social neuroscience use fictional or imagined stimuli. “Thus, we selected a sample of 64 individuals, involved in a relationship lasting for at least one year”, explains Joana Coutinho, researcher at the Psychological Neuroscience Laboratory of the University of Minho, principal investigator of the project.
In a first phase, each couple performed an interaction task, in which partners discussed positive and negative aspects of their relationship, while their levels of cortisol, heart rate and electrodermal activity were being measured. The results revealed a higher autonomic and neuroendocrine activation in the couple's negative interaction. It was also found that the physiological synchrony between the elements of the couple (measured by the co-variation of the physiologic responses of both partners) differed depending on the valence of the emotions expressed by the partners.
Subsequently, the videotaped material that resulted from that interaction was used to create mini video vignettes, in which each member of the couple communicated positive and negative aspects of their relationship. While they performed an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study, each spouse’s brain activity was measured while he/she watched the videos of his/her romantic partner and was asked to focus either on what he/she was feeling or on what his/her partner was feeling during the video.
These fMRI data revealed an important neuroanatomical overlap in the pattern of brain activation when individuals focused on their own feelings and those of their partner. The similarity in the brain areas activated in both conditions supported the idea that the understanding of our own internal states and those of others requires similar psychological processes and associated brain mechanisms. In a way, to understand the internal states of a close other we start by “simulating” those internal states in ourselves.
“With the support of the BIAL Foundation, it was possible to carry out this project which, by using more ecological tasks, contributed to a better understanding of how social brain networks are shaped by ‘real’ social interactions, concludes Joana Coutinho. Besides their scientific impact, these studies “have an important societal impact, namely in terms of the understanding of the adaptative functioning of couples. This is crucial considering the harmful consequences both for the members of the couple and for those who witness situations of domestic violence, such as children”, says the researcher.
Joana Coutinho also emphasises that “the questions analysed here are transversal to other dyads such as the mother-infant. On the other hand, due to the alterations in social cognition observed across a wide range of psychopathological disorders - from depression to autism - the researcher believes that these studies on the biological bases of social cognition may also benefit clinical intervention. “For example, we will be able to test if by intervening in a self-oriented process, we can also improve the capacity to understand others and relate with them”, reveals Joana Coutinho.
The research team, led by Joana Coutinho, also included Patrícia Oliveira-Silva, Jean Decety, Kristin McGovern, Óscar Gonçalves and Vânia Lima, in a consortium of researchers from the University of Minho, University of Chicago and Ball State University.
Learn more about the project “Neurobiological correlates of empathy in couples: A study of central and peripheral measures” here.