Sex and individual differences in empathy are reflected in differential default mode network connectivity

Joseph Levy, Margot Crossman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The default mode network (DMN) is a network of brain regions that is active in the resting brain.
As social interaction is central to the human condition, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a remarkable overlap between the spatial foci of the default mode network (DMN) and brain networks associated with various domains of social cognition. One important domain of social cognition is the multifaceted construct of empathy. Evidence suggests that there are sex differences in the neural correlates underlying empathy that reflect differences in the way males and females empathise. In addition, inter-individual variability in different components of trait empathy and in empathy-associated task performance have been shown to be related to differences in grey matter volume and cortical activity. In this study we examined whether sex and individual differences in empathy were reflected in differences in default mode network resting state functional connectivity (DMN RSFC). Participants underwent a resting state functional MRI scan and the data were analysed using Independent Component Analysis (ICA). The relationship between sex and individual differences in four aspects of empathy, measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), and differential DMN RSFC was examined. Sex differences in the relationship between empathy and DMN RSFC were identified which support previous findings suggesting differences in the neural pathways that males and females employ during social understanding of others. We also found that individual differences in sub-dimensions of trait empathy were associated with differential connectivity of DMN spatial foci. Specifically, we identified correlations between the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) connectivity and Perspective Taking and Personal Distress; between frontal region connectivity and Fantasy; and between bilateral insula connectivity and Empathic Concern. These findings are discussed in relation to the neural mechanisms mediating empathy.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusSubmitted - Feb 2016

Cite this