09/12/2013

Woman experiences case of hyper-empathy after brain surgery

NEWS

Stunning researchers, a woman who had her amygdala removed 13 years ago has been experiencing what has been described as hyper-empathy, which is the ability to recognize another person’s emotions. The especially unusual part of the story, according to researchers, is that 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.

The woman had parts of her temporal lobe, including the amygdala, removed from one side of the brain to treat a severe form of medication-resistant temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). After the surgery, the woman reported that her seizures had stopped, but that she started to have this over-powering feeling of empathy, which has persisted for the last 13 years.

Although patients with epilepsy treated with surgery have been known to experience new psychological issues afterward, such as depression or anxiety, this case of hyper-empathy is a first. In studying the woman with hyper empathy, 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 by answering questions such as "I am good at predicting how someone will feel" and "I get upset if I see people suffering on news programs." 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 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.

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