Empathy for positive and negative emotions in the gustatory cortex

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Abstract

Anterior insula and adjacent frontal operculum (hereafter referred to as IFO) are active during exposure to tastants/odorants (particularly disgusting ones), and during the viewing of disgusted facial expressions. Together with lesion data, the IFO has thus been proposed to be crucial in processing disgust-related stimuli. Here, we examined IFO involvement in the processing of other people's gustatory emotions more generally by exposing participants to food-related disgusted, pleased and neutral facial expressions during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We then exposed participants to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral tastants for the purpose of mapping their gustatory IFO. Finally, we associated participants' self reported empathy (measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, IRI) with their IFO activation during the witnessing of others' gustatory emotions. We show that participants' empathy scores were predictive of their gustatory IFO activation while witnessing both the pleased and disgusted facial expression of others. While the IFO has been implicated in the processing of negative emotions of others and empathy for negative experiences like pain, our finding extends this concept to empathy for intense positive feelings, and provides empirical support for the view that the IFO contributes to empathy by mapping the bodily feelings of others onto the internal bodily states of the observer, in agreement with the putative interoceptive function of the IFO.

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