Empathy in youths

change in patterns of eye gaze and brain activity with the manipulation of visual attention to emotional faces

Jason M. Bruggemann, Katie Osborne-Crowley, Kristin R. Laurens, Vaughan G. Macefield, Mark Dadds, Melissa Green, Rhoshel Lenroot

Research output: Contribution to journalMeeting abstract


Background & aim: Understanding the emotional state of others isfundamental to effective social interaction and the development ofempathy. Critical information is conveyed via the eyes, and reducedattention to the eyes is associated with poorer emotion recognitionand empathic deficits in individuals with disorders affecting socialcognition such as autism or some types of conduct problems.Deliberately redirecting attention to the eyes may be a way ofimproving behaviour. However, the effects of directing attention onbrain activity during emotional processing has not been studiedpreviously. Our aim was to determine whether manipulation ofvisual attention in youths affects their eye gaze patterns and brainresponses to expression of emotions in others.Method: Eighteen typically developing male youths aged 8-16performed an implicit facial emotion processing task while viewingdifferent facial expressions (fearful, neutral, happy), presented inthree separate blocks under three different instructions: undirected,eye-gaze and mouth-gaze. Eye tracking (dwell time) and functional-MRI data were acquired concurrently as measures of visual attentionand brain response, respectively.Results: Eye tracking indicated that the youths attended more tothe eyes than the mouth in the undirected condition. Redirectingattention to the eyes and mouth significantly increased attention tothese areas. Compared to undirected, directing attention to thefearful eyes also produced a greater increase in attention thanneutral eyes. Attention directed to eyes elicited greater brain activityin frontal regions than undirected attention.Discussion & conclusions: The undirected eye gaze patternsindicate natural orienting to eyes in healthy youths, which can beeffectively altered with instruction. Directing attention to fearful eyesengaged attention relatively longer than neutral, consistent with thethreat value of fearful faces. These data also demonstrate thatmanipulation of visual attention modulates activity in frontalregions, perhaps reflecting greater engagement of executive functiondue to attentional demands. Understanding attentional manipulationeffects in a healthy sample will inform ongoing workaddressing potentially perturbed response patterns in a conductproblem cohort.
Original languageEnglish
Article number225
Pages (from-to)150
Number of pages1
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes
Event18th World Congress of Psychophysiology of the International Organization of Psychophysiology (IOP) - Havana, Cuba
Duration: 31 Aug 20164 Sep 2016

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