Empathy is a highly flexible and adaptive process that allows for the interplay of prosocial behavior in many different social contexts. Empathy appears to be a very situated cognitive process, embedded with specific contextual cues that trigger different automatic and controlled responses. In this review, we summarize relevant evidence regarding social context modulation of empathy for pain. Several contextual factors, such as stimulus reality and personal experience, affectively link with other factors, emotional cues, threat information, group membership, and attitudes toward others to influence the affective, sensorimotor, and cognitive processing of empathy. Thus, we propose that the frontoinsular-temporal network, the so-called social context network model (SCNM), is recruited during the contextual processing of empathy. This network would (1) update the contextual cues and use them to construct fast predictions (frontal regions), (2) coordinate the internal (body) and external milieus (insula), and (3) consolidate the context-target associative learning of empathic processes (temporal sites). Furthermore, we propose these context-dependent effects of empathy in the framework of the frontoinsular-temporal network and examine the behavioral and neural evidence of three neuropsychiatric conditions (Asperger syndrome, schizophrenia, and the behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia), which simultaneously present with empathy and contextual integration impairments. We suggest potential advantages of a situated approach to empathy in the assessment of these neuropsychiatric disorders, as well as their relationship with the SCNM.
- Asperger syndrome
- Context-dependent effects
- Frontoinsular-temporal network
- Social cognition