Habileté et propension à l'empathie : conceptualisation et étude de facteurs d'influence par des mesures comportementales et cérébrales

Authors: B. Tremblay, Marie-Pier
Advisor: Jackson, Philip L.
Abstract: Empathy is a complex function that allows individuals to understand and even share the emotions and mental states of others. This function involves an affective component, which allows one to feel what the other feels, but to a lesser degree, and a cognitive component, which corresponds to the capacity to take the other's perspective and to infer one's mental states. The cerebral network underlying the affective component of empathy overlaps with the salience network, including regions such as the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. The network underlying the cognitive component of empathy converges with the mentalizing network, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. A distinction between the ability (maximum capacity of an individual) and propensity (tendency to use this ability) to empathize has been suggested. This distinction emerges from the fact that an individual's empathy can be affected by multiple individual and contextual factors. The main objective of the thesis was to deepen the theoretical, methodological and empirical knowledge on the concepts of ability and propensity for empathy. The first chapter of the thesis aimed for a better understanding of empathic ability and propensity by modulating contextual factors and investigating the interaction between these factors and certain individual characteristics. Using two behavioural studies, the results suggested that an instruction encouraging empathy and a cognitive load could increase empathy compared to a passive observation condition. However, this effect was significant only in some individuals, notably according to age, self-reported psychopathic, autistic, alexithymic and empathy traits, as well as men for the cognitive load. These individuals would thus be less consistent in the use of their empathy, using it fully only in some contexts. In order to better understand the processes underlying empathic propensity, the objective of the second chapter was to assess the cerebral functional connectivity patterns that covary with the cognitive and affective components of empathy, according to some individual characteristics that are associated with the propensity to empathize (i.e., age and sex). In individuals with a high empathic propensity (i.e., adults and women), the results showed that the functionnal connectivity of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex recruited regions typically associated with the cognitive component of empathy, while the connectivity patterns of the anterior insula recruited regions that underlie the cognitive and affective components of empathy. These patterns were very different in individuals with a low empathic propensity (i.e., adolescents and men), for whom the connectivity patterns were diffuse and less integrated, which might vi contribute to their weaker empathy in some situations. Finally, the third chapter of the thesis sought to deepen the theoretical foundations of empathy, in particular the definition of the concept and its components, the notions of ability and propensity, as well as the self-report, behavioural, neurophysiological and neuroimaging methods to evaluate it. A quantitative review of the questionnaires that exist to measure empathy was performed and highlighted that, while several authors view empathy as an ability, most tools actually measure the propensity to empathize. Thus, this chapter raised the idea that several tools currently used to measure empathy are not optimal and do not consider all components of empathy, as such recommendations to overcome these limitations were provided. A decision tree was also suggested to help future researchers in the selection of the most appropriate scale of empathy according to their research question and the components they wish to assess. Overall, the thesis deepened the current theoretical and methodological knowledge on empathy, and more precisely the concepts of ability and propensity to empathize. The thesis also suggested a novel definition of empathy and a more holistic step-by-step theoretical model of this concept, including more components and constructs related to empathy. Thus, the empirical results of the thesis, as well as the discussed theoretical aspects can be used to deepen the knowledge about empathy in the field of social and cognitive neuroscience, with the ultimate goal to adequately measure empathy and even optimize it in individuals with a low propensity.
Document Type: Thèse de doctorat
Issue Date: 2021
Open Access Date: 10 May 2021
Permalink: http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11794/69056
Grantor: Université Laval
Collection:Thèses et mémoires

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