Blair (2005) has stated that the empathy system is comprised of three main neural networks, which drive emotional empathy, cognitive empathy and motor empathy. The neural networks can work partially alone, but an empathic response typically involves all three neural networks working together. Emotional empathy is an emotional response to another person’s emotional gestures, vocal articulations and facial expressions such as feeling happiness, sadness, fearfulness or disgust (which is similar to what someone else is feeling). Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize another person’s emotional state, even though the other person may have wants, goals and thoughts different from him or her. Motor empathy is a mirror response to another person’s movements, postures, facial and vocal expressions.
Within the scientific literature, Blair (2005) took a look at autism and psychopathy and found that people with autism have problems with the neural networks driving cognitive and motor empathy, but he suggested that whether autistic individuals have problems with the network for emotional empathy is unknown. In contrast, he argued that people with psychopathy have no issues with the neural network driving cognitive empathy, but have problems with the network for emotional empathy with respect to fearful, sad and maybe disgusted facial expressions, and he speculated that there are probably no issues with the neural network that drives motor empathy either.
To learn more about empathy and disorders with empathic dysfunction you can read,
Blair, R. J. R. (2005). Responding to the emotions of others: Dissociating forms of empathy through the study of typical and psychiatric populations. Conscious and Cognition, 14, 698-718.
[NOTE: not all research agrees with Dr. Blair’s perspective on psychopathy and empathy. We plan to present additional information on this issue in the future.]