Emotion & Empathy Circuitry in Infants

For some reason I started reading The Science of Evil [1] again. It is an easy read, and I needed to relax. Not that reading about the scientific basis of evil, or rather as Baron-Cohen puts it, the erosion of empathy, is a particularly relaxing pastime. However, as it seems as good a place as any to get back to intellectualizing.

Circuits in the brain

At last reading, I noticed that one of the figures showed components of the ’empathy circuit’. This piqued my interest, since my favorite part of the brain is the limbic system, discovered by James Papez [2] in 1937, to contain the components of the emotional circuit, including a thalamic relay.

Emotional circuit

The limbic circuit consists of structures that lie along the midline of the brain. They include gray matter structures and white matter cabling: the olfactory bulbs, hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, fornix, column of fornix, mamillary body, Septum pellucidum, habenular commisure, cingulate gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus. [3] ‘Limbus’ means border. The limbic system comprises the edge of the cortex. [4]

Empathy circuit

The empathy circuit as described by Baron-Cohen consists of the following structures: [5]

  1. Medial Prefrontal Cortex – described as the ‘hub’ for processing social information
  2. Orbito-frontal Cortex – associated with judgment of social situations
  3. Frontal Operculum – also involved with language
  4. Inferior Frontal Gyrus – associated with difficulties in emotional recognition
  5. Caudal Anterior Cingulate Cortex and Anterior Insula – activated as part of the “pain matrix”
  6. Temporoparietal Juction – involved with the “Theory of Mind”
  7. Superior Temporal Sulcus – involved with monitoring the gaze
  8. Somatosensory Cortex – involved with tactile sensation and when tactile sensation is observed in others
  9. Inferior Parietal Lobule and Inferior Parietal Sulcus – parts of the mirror neuron system
  10. Amygdala – a part of the limbic system for emotional regulation and learning


For those unfamiliar with brain anatomy, these terms may be daunting. For those interested, however, it is worthwhile to dig in.

The non-intellectual side

One doesn’t have to know anything about the emotional circuit or the empathy circuit to have emotions or empathy. However, perhaps attention to infants can forewarn parents about future development of emotion or empathy circuit components. A very recent article in Nature suggests that eye contact in infants as young as 2-6 months can indicate the future presence of autism. [6] Perhaps early intervention can improve the chances for development of more intact brain circuitry to process inputs related to emotion and empathy.

Jack and Will

[1] Baron-Cohen, S. The Science of Evil New York: Basic Books 2012

[2] Papez, J.W. A Proposed Mechanism Of Emotion Arch NeurPsych. 1937;38(4):725-743.

[4] Lautin, A.L. The Limbic Brain New York: Springer, 2001

[5] Baron-Cohen, S. The Science of Evil New York: Basic Books 2012  pg 31-40

[6] Jones, W. & Klin, A. Attention to eyes is present but in decline in 2-6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism Nature (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12715 Published online  06 November 2013

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