Monash researchers find emotional brains ‘physically different’ to rational ones

30 June 2015

Researchers at Monash University have found physical differences in the brains of people who respond emotionally to others’ feelings, compared to those who respond more rationally, in a study published in the journal NeuroImage.
The work, led by Robert Eres from the Monash School of Psychological Sciences, pinpointed correlations between grey matter density and cognitive and affective empathy. The study looked at whether people who have more brain cells in certain areas of the brain are better at different types of empathy.

Monash University psychology
Researchers have found physical discrepancies in emotional brains compared to rational ones

“People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counselling a client,” Mr Eres said.
The researchers used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to examine the extent to which grey matter density in 176 participants predicted their scores on tests that rated their levels for cognitive empathy compared to affective—or emotional—empathy.
The results showed that people with high scores for affective empathy had greater grey matter density in the insula, a region found right in the ‘middle’ of the brain. Those who scored higher for cognitive empathy had greater density in the midcingulate cortex—an area above the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain.
“Taken together, these results provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different neural and structural correlates,” the study said.
The findings raise further questions about whether some kinds of empathy could be increased through training, or whether people can lose their capacity for empathy if they don’t use it enough.
“Every day people use empathy with, and without, their knowledge to navigate the social world,” said Mr Eres.
“We use it for communication, to build relationships, and consolidate our understanding of others.”
However, the discovery also raises new questions, like whether people could train themselves to be more empathic, and would those areas of the brain become larger if they did, or whether we can lose our ability to empathise if we don’t use it enough.
“In the future we want to investigate causation by testing whether training people on empathy related tasks can lead to changes in these brain structures and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as a result of a stroke for example, can lead to empathy impairments,” said Mr Eres.

Monash School of Psychological Sciences

The Monash School of Psychological Sciences is ranked amongst the best in the world. Their vision is to provide leadership in the modern discipline of psychology by integrating cutting-edge interdisciplinary research that is grounded in psychological science and clinical translation; superior teaching that is transformational in its approach of blending traditional with virtual learning experiences; and by translating our research discoveries to have a lasting impact on societal and health outcomes across the lifespan.
Research is a core priority and the school is engaged in a wide range of cutting-edge activities with a strong focus on behavioural and cognitive neuroscience and mental health translational research. A number of interdisciplinary, state-of-the-art technology platforms allow students and staff to explore brain, cognitive, and behavioural processes at multiple levels of analysis. Combining both laboratory based science and clinical research across psychology and psychiatry, findings are translated into evidence based practice, policy and training. Consider the following degrees:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
  • Doctor of Psychology (Clinical Neuropsychology)
  • Doctor of Psychology (Clinical Psychology)
  • Master of Biomedical Science


Find out more about studying psychological sciences at Monash University. Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Psychology Schools Admissions Officer Rachel Brady at 1-866-698-7355 or