"The Social Neuroscience of Empathy" edited by Jean Decety and William Ickes is a great book for anyone who wishes to get a better understanding of empathy and a comprehensive overview of the current research in the field of empathy.
Book's Style and Structure
"The Social Neuroscience of Empathy" is a composition of works from various psychologists and neuroscientists that covers many aspects of empathy. The first chapter of the book introduces the concept of empathy and defines empathy using eight phenomena. The rest of the book is divided into three main perspectives on empathy: I) Social, Cognitive, and Developmental Perspectives, II) Clinical Perspectives and III) Evolutionary and Neuroscience Perspectives.
In the first chapter, readers are introduced to the concept of empathy. Two questions about human behavior are proposed that relate to the concept of empathy: 1) "How can one know what another person is thinking and feeling?" and 2) "What leads one person to respond with sensitivity and care to the suffering of another?". This chapter also discusses several uses of the term empathy such as when a person knows another's internal state, feels the way another person feels, imagines how they feel, feels distress over another's suffering, or has empathic concern for another's suffering.
In the Social, Cognitive, and Developmental part of the book, empathy is explored through a variety of difference social interactions. Social imitation is described as an automatic process in which behavior and mannerisms are subconsciously mimicked, leading to a higher sense of social unity. In the chapter on Empathetic Accuracy, there is a focus on clinical psychology with a look into autism, borderline personality disorder, and martially abusive men. The chapter Empathy and Education discusses the role empathy plays in the academic environment. It examines how student empathy can aid in cooperation, the prevention of aggressive behavior, and increased academic achievement. This chapter also discusses how a teacher's empathy for the students can improve the student's attitude toward learning and acceptance of other students.
In the clinical perspectives part of the book, empathy is discussed in how it relates to psychotherapy and the relationship between therapist and client. The empathy resulting from perceiving another person in pain is proposed as being a key social construct for raising a sense of alarm or motivation to provide aid. This part of the book also describes how empathy, or lack of empathy, relates to psychopathy and moral reasoning.
The Evolutionary and Neuroscience Perspectives on Empathy chapters of the book cover concepts such as the evolution of social behaviors, neural networks, and neuroendocrine processes that are involved with empathy. This part of the book describes empathy from a physiological point of view, showing how difference brain structures are involved in social engagement. Oxytocin and vasopressin are two molecules highlighted for their influence on human social behavior and their possible influence on differences in empathy between males and females. In the chapter "Mirror, Mirror, in my Mind" the book describes the role of mirror neuron like responses in humans as shown by brain imaging techniques such as functional MRI, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and electroencephalography.
Review of Pros and Cons
Pros: The text is easy to read and all non-technical terms are well defined which allows for quick comprehension. Examples from psychological and neuroscience experiments are woven in to add support to the conceptual claims. The book approaches empathy from both a behavioral standpoint and a neuroscience standpoint.
Cons: Some parts of the book could have been a bit more concise. The examples used to give further clarification can become repetitive at times. During the chapter on Empathy and Knowledge Projection, the concept of projection is clearly explained using a few examples, but the authors go on to include many more examples that do not additionally add to the reader's understanding. Due to the fact that the book is a compilation of several author's research areas, empathy is redefined at the beginning of each chapter. This can become repetitive for the reader if they are reading the book cover to cover, but may be beneficial if the reader is skipping to a specific chapter.
I would recommend this book to anyone is has an interest in empathy, whether or not they have background in neuroscience or psychology. The book conveys its material in an easy to understand format that includes definitions for terms and examples for concepts. Students and neuroscience enthusiasts will enjoy the broad range of empathy related topics covered within this book. Clinicians, counselors, and psychiatrists may find certain key chapters of this book useful for improving patient/therapist interactions. Ph.D.s and experts in the field who have specific interests in the realm of empathy can focus on a particular subject within the book since there are well defined chapters and subsections. Researchers in the field of psychology and neuroscience will appreciate the many scientific studies the book uses as supporting material to back scientific claims.