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From emotion resonance to empathic understanding: A social developmental neuroscience account

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 October 2008

Jean Decety*
University of Chicago
Meghan Meyer
Stanford University School of Medicine
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Jean Decety, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago, 5848 South University Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637; E-mail:


The psychological construct of empathy refers to an intersubjective induction process by which positive and negative emotions are shared, without losing sight of whose feelings belong to whom. Empathy can lead to personal distress or to empathic concern (sympathy). The goal of this paper is to address the underlying cognitive processes and their neural underpinnings that constitute empathy within a developmental neuroscience perspective. In addition, we focus on how these processes go awry in developmental disorders marked by impairments in social cognition, such as autism spectrum disorder, and conduct disorder. We argue that empathy involves both bottom-up and top-down information processing, underpinned by specific and interacting neural systems. We discuss data from developmental psychology as well as cognitive neuroscience in support of such a model, and highlight the impact of neural dysfunctions on social cognitive developmental behavior. Altogether, bridging developmental science and cognitive neuroscience helps approach a more complete understanding of social cognition. Synthesizing these two domains also contributes to a better characterization of developmental psychopathologies that impacts the development of effective treatment strategies.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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The writing of this manuscript was supported by NSF Grant BCS 0718480 (to J.D.).


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