Strange Case of 'Hyper Empathy' after Brain Surgery

In a strange case, a woman developed "hyper empathy" after having a part of her brain called the amygdala removed in an effort to treat her severe epilepsy, according to a report of her case. Empathy is the ability to recognize another person's emotions.

The case was especially unusual because the amygdala is involved in recognizing emotions, and removing it would be expected to make it harder rather than easier for a person to read others' emotions, according to the researchers involved in her case.

During the woman's surgery, doctors removed parts of her temporal lobe, including the amygdala, from one side of the brain. The surgery is a common treatment for people with severe forms of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) who don't respond to medication.

After the surgery, the seizures she had suffered multiple times a day stopped. But the woman reported a "new, spectacular emotional arousal," that has persisted for 13 years to this date, the researchers said. [9 Oddest Medical Cases]

Although patients with epilepsy treated with surgery have been known to experience new psychological issues afterward, such as depression or anxiety, "the case of this patient is surprising because her complaint is uncommon, and fascinating: hyper empathy," said Dr. Aurélie Richard-Mornas, a neurologist at University Hospital of Saint-Étienne in France, who reported the case.

Her empathy seemed to transcend her body -- the woman reported feeling physical effects along with her emotions, such as a "spin at the heart" or an "esophageal unpleasant feeling" when experiencing empathic sadness or anger. She reported these feelings when seeing people on TV, meeting people in person, or reading about characters in novels, the researchers said.

She also described an increased ability to decode others' mental states, including their emotions, the researchers said. Her newly acquired ability to empathize was confirmed by her family, and she performed exceptionally well in psychological tests of empathy, the researchers said.

The case, published Aug. 14 in the journal Neurocase, is the first in the scientific literature describing this kind of emotional change after removing parts of the temporal lobe, Richard-Mornas said. [Image: Patient's MRI Scan after Surgery]

Kinds of empathy

Psychologists define two major forms of empathy: emotional and cognitive.

"Emotional empathy refers to feeling another person's emotion," Richard-Mornas said. "While cognitive empathy is the ability to adopt the other person's point of view, or 'put oneself in his/her shoes,' without necessarily experiencing any emotion."

It's not exactly clear how the human brain is able to understand and re-create the mental and emotional state of another person, but it appears that not everyone is equally good at it. For example, people with autism are thought to have difficulty understanding other people's intentions, and psychopaths are thought to show a lack of empathy, being unable to experience the emotional reaction people usually have when seeing another person in distress.

In studying the woman with hyper empathy, the researchers evaluated her psychological condition with a series of standard tests, and found that her mental health appeared normal.

The researchers also analyzed how the woman responded to a questionnaire aimed at measuring empathy, made of items such as "I am good at predicting how someone will feel" and "I get upset if I see people suffering on news programmes." She also completed a test of recognizing the emotions in 36 photographs of only people's eyes, and her scores were compared to those of 10 women who served as controls.

Her performance in empathy tests was above average, and her score on the eye test was significantly higher than that of the controls, according to the researchers.

The missing amygdala

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure, sitting deep in the temporal lobe. It appears to be involved in social interaction, and is thought critical for quickly evaluating and responding to emotional stimuli, such as a frightening predator or a sad face.

The new case comes in contrast to previous observations of people who endured damage to the amygdala and suffered emotional deficits. In a 2001 study involving 22 people who had parts of their temporal lobe removed, researchers found that people with more extensive damage to the amygdala performed worse in learning emotional facial expressions.

However, in the absence of the amygdala, other brain regions, and perhaps newly organized connections among them, may be responsible for driving stronger empathy, the researchers of the new case report said.

"Neural substrates of complex emotions such as empathy are poorly understood," said Dr. Joseph Sirven, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, who was not involved with the case.

"What we are finding is that there is not just one anatomical correlate of emotion.  Rather, complex emotions like empathy, hope, etc., are likely to occur as a complex interplay from a number of areas in the brain and the amygdala is one," Sirven said.

The woman's case suggests it is possible to have unexpectedly re-organized neural networks after this kind of surgery, the researchers said, and may have lessons for a better understanding of the brain.

"Most of modern neuroscience has its basis on observations of individual cases such as this one, that help to illuminate the complex working of the brain," Sirven said.

Email Bahar Gholipouror follow her @alterwired. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • N. Korea fires missiles in anger at South-US military drills
    N. Korea fires missiles in anger at South-US military drills

    North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea and vowed "merciless" retaliation Monday as the US and South Korea kicked off joint military drills denounced by Pyongyang as recklessly confrontational. The annual exercises always trigger a surge in military tensions and warlike rhetoric on the divided peninsula, and analysts saw the North's missile tests as a prelude to a concerted campaign of sabre-rattling. "If there is a particularly sharp escalation, we could see the …

  • Troops overrun BIFF bomb-making facility in Mamasapano
    Troops overrun BIFF bomb-making facility in Mamasapano

    Government troops captured Sunday a bomb and weapons factory of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) announced yesterday. Col. Restituto Padilla, AFP spokesman, said the captured bomb and weapons factory is located inside an area controlled by radical Muslim cleric Ustadz Mohammad Ali Tambako at Barangay Dasikil in Mamasapano. …

  • Couple married 67 years holds hands in final hours together
    Couple married 67 years holds hands in final hours together

    FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — After spending 67 years together as devoted husband and wife, there was no question how Floyd and Violet Hartwig would end their lives — together. …

  • No need for Revilla to visit son – prosecutors
    No need for Revilla to visit son – prosecutors

    Instead of filing an opposition, ombudsman prosecutors filed a manifestation yesterday expressing belief that there is no urgent need for Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. to visit his son at the Asian Hospital and Medical Center. “Based on the clinical abstract issued by the Asian Hospital on patient (Cavite) Vice-governor (Jolo) Revilla, which was submitted by accused Revilla in support of his Urgent Motion, Vice-governor Revilla is in stable condition and has stable vital signs, as of March 1, …

  • 'Jihadi John' relatives under watch in Kuwait
    'Jihadi John' relatives under watch in Kuwait

    Kuwaiti authorities are closely monitoring several relatives of "Jihadi John" who live and work in the Gulf emirate where the Islamic State executioner was born, press reports said on Sunday. A number of relatives of Mohammed Emwazi, named as the militant who has beheaded at least five Western hostages, are working in Kuwait and like him hold British citizenship, Al-Qabas newspaper reported. "Security agencies have taken the necessary measures to monitor them round the clock," the paper said, …

  • Interview: Australia says hunt for missing MH370 jet may be called off soon
    Interview: Australia says hunt for missing MH370 jet may be called off soon

    By Matt Siegel CANBERRA (Reuters) - The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 cannot go on forever, Australia's deputy prime minister said, and discussions are already under way between Australia, China and Malaysia as to whether to call off the hunt within weeks. No trace has been found of the Boeing 777 aircraft, which disappeared a year ago this week carrying 239 passengers and crew, in what has become one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history. The search of a rugged …

  • How Islamic is Islamic State group? Not very, experts say
    How Islamic is Islamic State group? Not very, experts say

    CAIRO (AP) — Three British schoolgirls believed to have gone to Syria to become "jihadi" brides. Three young men charged in New York with plotting to join the Islamic State group and carry out attacks on American soil. A masked, knife-wielding militant from London who is the face of terror in videos showing Western hostages beheaded. …

  • Bong wants to see son in hospital
    Bong wants to see son in hospital

    Detained Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. will ask the Sandiganbayan to allow him to visit his son, Cavite Vice Gov. Jolo Revilla, confined at the intensive care unit of the Asian Hospital and Medical Center in Muntinlupa for a gunshot wound in the chest. Lawyer Raymond Fortun, spokesman for the Revilla family, said the senator would ask for a 24- to 48-hour furlough. Sen. Revilla’s legal counsel Ramon Esguerra said doctors removed a half liter of blood. Fortun said he was able to talk to Jolo …


Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Poll Choice Options