Activity increases in empathy-related brain regions when children contribute to peers’ sadness and happiness

Erin M. McDonald, Katrina D. Farris, Arden M. Cooper, Meghan Rose Donohue, Erin C. Tully

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Responding empathically when causing peers’ emotions is critical to children's interpersonal functioning, yet there are surprising gaps in the literature. Previous research has focused on empathy when witnessing others’ emotions instead of causing others’ emotions, on negative emotions instead of positive emotions, and on behavioral correlates instead of neural correlates. In this study, children (N = 38; Mage = 9.28 years; 50% female) completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging block design task in which they played a rigged game where they won and lost coins for themselves or peers and viewed their peers’ happiness and sadness. We used a region of interest approach to test whether activity in brain regions associated with positive and negative empathy in adults showed significantly greater activity in each condition (i.e., when children won and lost tokens for themselves and peers) compared with a fixation baseline. We predicted that experiencing self-conscious emotions, such as pride and guilt, would heighten the experience of empathy. Activity in the amygdala, which is associated with visceral arousal, and in the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which are associated with integrated arousal, increased significantly when winning and losing for oneself and peers and observing their resulting happy and sad facial expressions. Activity did not differ when playing for oneself versus peers, indicating that self-conscious emotions do not heighten empathy and instead support similar neural processes underlying firsthand and secondhand (empathic) emotions. These findings support that empathy during middle childhood involves the same brain regions as empathy during adulthood and that children experience firsthand and secondhand positive and negative emotions in similar ways.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105812
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - Mar 2024


  • Affect arousal
  • Amygdala
  • Child
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • fMRI


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