Tania Singer is Assistant Professor of Social Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics at the Center for the Study of Social and Neural Systems at the University of Zurich. She studied psychology and media at the University of Marburg and the Technical University of Berlin. She was Pre- and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where she worked on cognitive development over the life span. For her dissertation she was awarded the Otto Hahn medal which she used to go to London to work with Chris Frith on the social brain at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, UCL. In her last year in London she worked with Uta Frith at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, in London, where she extended her previous work on the neural underpinnings of empathy and fairness on healthy subjects to autistic populations. She recently obtained a highly competitive grant (of the 9,167 applications submitted, 3% were funded) by the European Research Council (ERC) to fund a project entitled: "Plasticity of the Empathic Brain: Structural and Functional MRI Studies on the Effect of Empathy Training on the Human Brain and Prosocial Behaviour." She has authored many articles on the social brain in prestigious journals such as Science or Nature, is associate editor of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience and on the board of the Society for Neuroeconomics. Her main research interest is in the understanding of the foundation of human social behaviour and cooperation as well as social emotions such as empathy and fairness from the perspective of social neuroscience, developmental and social cognitive psychology as well as economics. In her spare time, she pursues interests in the arts, participating in drama and film productions as well as studying music, voice, and dance.
With the emergence of social neuroscience, researchers have started to investigate the underpinnings of our ability to share and understand feelings of others. After a definition of the concepts ‘cognitive perspective taking’, ‘emotion contagion’, ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’ I will shortly revise the main results of neuroscientific studies on our ability to understand other peoples intentions and believes. I will then show several fMRI studies investigating empathic brain responses elicited by the observation of others in pain and show how these empathic brain responses are modulated by several contextual and stimulus intrinsic factors. I will then show results of two studies exploring the relationship between interoceptive awareness, empathy and pathologies such as Alexithymia and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These results suggest that impaired interoceptive awareness –a symptom observed in Alexithymia- is associated with impaired empathy but not cognitive perspective taking, the latter being frequently observed in patients with ASD. Finally, I will conclude the talk with results of three studies, one investigating the effects of oxytocin on empathy and prosocial behavior, the second one on the developmental underpinnings of our capacity for empathy and emotion control and the third one on expertise effects observed in Buddhist monks while they are engaging in different forms of compassion meditation techniques while being scanned.
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