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Two UOIT researchers exploring the nature of empathic concern

Dr. Matthew Shane and Dr. Nathan Arbuckle receive new SSHRC awards


Empathy is an essential social process that allows people to understand and sympathize with another person’s thoughts and feelings. What factors influence how empathic people will feel towards others? Is it possible to help people feel more empathic towards their fellow humans?

Researchers within the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s (UOIT) Faculty of Social Science and Humanities are seeking answers to such questions as they embark on several two-year research projects funded by new Insight Development Grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Dr. Matthew Shane, Assistant Professor (Forensic Psychology) will be undertaking a study to evaluate the brain systems underlying empathy and perspective-taking, to better understand the systems that support the accurate understanding of another person’s thoughts and feelings.  

“A better understanding of the way in which the brain represents and processes another’s experiences will not only help us understand how and why we can empathize with another, but also how and why we sometimes do not,” said Dr. Shane. “Our study seeks to make use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify the specific neural systems that activate when one truly understands what another person is experiencing.”

Dr. Nathan Arbuckle, a Post-doctoral Fellow in Dr. Shane’s laboratory, will be undertaking a complementary project, aimed at using modern neuroscientific methods to evaluate whether one can increase their level of empathic concern in certain situations.

Dr. Arbuckle says that while empathic concern has typically been believed to be a spontaneous reaction, recent research suggests that the level of empathy one feels for another may be under conscious control.  

“There is good evidence from research on compassion-training that people can learn to become more in tune with the thoughts and feelings of others,” said Dr. Arbuckle. “In our work, we plan to evaluate the extent to which people may also be capable of generating an empathic response on their own, without any sort of instruction or training.”

Over the longer-term, Drs. Shane and Arbuckle envision the development of a neuroscientifically informed method of increasing concern for our fellow human beings. This could have important implications for diverse fields, including the management of intergroup conflict, the prevalence of schoolyard bullying, and the diagnosis and treatment of populations characterized by difficulties empathizing with others (e.g. autistic children, antisocial populations).

Dr. Shane’s SSHRC Insight Development Grant is valued at $70,915 over two years.

Dr. Arbuckle’s SSHRC Insight Development Grant is valued at $71,959 over two years.