Two Routes to Empathy: Insights from Cognitive Neuroscience

Alvin I. Goldman

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

9 Scopus citations


This article proposes a distinction between two kinds of empathy, or routes to empathy: mirroring empathy and reconstructive empathy. The focus is on a minimal sense of empathy, i.e., interpersonal mental isomorphism. Research on mirror systems indicates that isomorphisms are produced, largely automatically, across several domains: motor planning, touch, pain, and disgust. A second route to empathy is less automatic, and appears to be subserved by a core brain network dedicated to shifting perspective from the immediate environment to an alternative situation. Carroll and Buckner (2007) hypothesize the use of this network to implement four forms of selfprojection: remembering the past, thinking about the future (prospection), representing the viewpoint of others (mindreading), and navigation. The third kind of self-projection is empathy (of the second variety). A possible common signature of this system is the presence of analogous egocentric biases in high-level mindreading and episodic memory. The article concludes with some speculation about which form of empathy is "superior".

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEmpathy
Subtitle of host publicationPhilosophical and Psychological Perspectives
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780191730931
ISBN (Print)9780199539956
StatePublished - Jan 19 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


  • Affective states
  • Amnesia
  • Core brain system
  • Default network disgust
  • Egocentric biases
  • Episodic memory
  • Hippocampus
  • Imagination isomorphism
  • Mental time travel
  • Mirroring
  • Pain
  • Paracingulate cortex parahippocampal gyrus
  • Perspective shifting
  • Prospection simulation
  • Selfprojection
  • Touch


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