Empathy improves with age

A unique network is activated in our brains whenever we think of other people. This network has a social function, and changes during adolescence. The change enables us to become better at understanding others and sharing in their feelings. But, as psychologist Sandy Overgaauw discovered, it doesn’t have the same effect in everyone. PhD defence 19 February.

Social brain changes in adolescence

Why do we help a friend in need? Why does someone try to break up a fight between two people, while others don’t? Sandy Overgaauw studied the underlying brain mechanisms that enable us to share the emotions of others, comprehend their intentions and even drive us to help others. The network controlling these sensations is known as the social brain network. She also shows that the social brain changes during adolescence and that not everyone responds as strongly to that network.


Brain network detects intention

Overgaauw followed and studied a group of adolescents aged twelve to nineteen for a period of two years. They were asked to try to determine the emotional intentions of people of whom only the eyes were visible. Whenever working on this assignment, the social brain network in each of the adolescents became active. And whenever they were asked to guess the age and sex of the person in question, that network remained dormant. Overgaauw: ‘This means that the social brain network plays an important role in detecting and naming someone’s emotional intentions, but not in guessing someone’s age or sex.’

Reading intentions becomes easier

Overgaauw also discovered that an important part of the social brain network, which can be found in the frontal cortex, was more active in younger participants. From this, she concluded that reading intentions becomes something of an automatic activity when people grow up. ‘It looks like older adolescents don’t rely on their social brain network as much anymore, though this isn’t condition for developing better empathetic skills.’

Difference in activity of social brain

Overgaauw also let the participants judge physically threatening situations by, for instance, showing images of two fighting teenagers. This test revealed that not everyone’s social brain was as active, as the networks of those participants who are more empathetic in daily life did not respond as strongly as those of others. This suggests that they are simply better at evaluating social situations.

Unique study: long-term tracking of participants

This thesis is based on one of the first studies that followed participants for a long period of time. According to Overgaauw, its results suggest that there is plenty of room for subsequent studies on teenagers who find it difficult to empathise with others. ‘A better understanding of the mechanisms in the brain that enable empathy is an important step towards developing intervention programmes for struggling adolescents.’

(16 February 2015)

See also

Studying in Leiden



Psychology (9 specialisations)
Psychology Research (4 specialisations)

Last Modified: 17-02-2015