Public defence in Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, M.Sc. Niloufar Zebarjadi

The present thesis investigated the intricate neural mechanism underpinning empathy and its variations across individuals.

Public defence from the Aalto University School of Science, Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering
Doctoral hat floating above a speaker's podium with a microphone

Title of the thesis: Empathy Dynamics: A Neuroscientific Perspective

Doctoral student: Niloufar Zebarjadi
Opponent: Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory, University of Haifa, Israel
Custos: Professor Iiro Jääskeläinen, Aalto University School of Science, Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering

Empathy, a socio-cognitive process of perceiving the feelings of others, is one of the fundamental basis of healthy social interaction. Advancements in neuroimaging techniques in the past three decades have facilitated a deeper exploration of the neural mechanisms associated with empathy, complementing traditional approaches and broadening the understanding of this complex phenomenon. 

This thesis investigated the intricate neural basis of empathy and its variations across individuals. In Study I, we employed magnetoencephalography (MEG) to explore frequency-decomposed neural activities during pain empathy. We detected four significant patterns corresponding to different components of empathy and their link to subjective experiences. In Study II, MEG and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) were utilized to examine the maturation of empathy, revealing a shift in neural and functional mechanisms of empathy from adolescence to young adulthood. Studies III and IV delved into the association between political ideology and neural responses to emotional suffering and physical pain of others, respectively, highlighting an intriguing, yet complex, relationship between empathy and political ideology. 

Overall, the findings in the current thesis advance the understanding of neural processes underlying empathy, underscoring the importance of considering diverse factors such as age, political ideology, and subjective experiences. This research can open new vistas for future exploration, encouraging a more comprehensive approach to neuroscientific investigations of empathy.

Keywords: Empathy, Neural oscillation, Alpha rhythm, Social neuroscience, Neuropolitics

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