Although empathic responses to stimuli with emotional contents may occur automatically, humans are capable to intentionally empathize with other individuals. Intentional empathy for others is even possible when they do not show emotional expressions. However, little is known about the neuronal mechanisms of this intentionally controlled empathic process. To investigate the neuronal substrates underlying intentional empathy, we scanned 20 healthy Chinese subjects, using fMRI, when they tried to feel inside the emotional states of neutral or angry faces of familiar (Asian) and unfamiliar (Caucasian) models. Skin color evaluation of the same stimuli served as a control task. Compared to a baseline condition, the empathy task revealed a network of established empathy regions, including the anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral inferior frontal cortex and bilateral anterior insula. The contrast of intentional empathy vs skin color evaluation, however, revealed three regions: the bilateral inferior frontal cortex, whose hemodynamic responses were independent of perceived emotion and familiarity and the right-middle temporal gyrus, whose activity was modulated by emotion but not by familiarity. These findings extend our understanding of the role of the inferior frontal cortex and the middle temporal gyrus in empathy by demonstrating their involvement in intentional empathy.
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