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Gallese, V. (2008). Empathy, Embodied Simulation, and the Brain: Commentary on Aragno and Zepf/Hartmann. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 56(3):769-781.

(2008). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 56(3):769-781

Academic Exchange: Empathy: Commantaries

Empathy, Embodied Simulation, and the Brain: Commentary on Aragno and Zepf/Hartmann Related Papers

Vottorio Gallese

The notion of empathy, or Einfühlung, has seen renewed interest among cognitive neuroscientists over the past decade, especially in light of many neuroscientific discoveries in the domain of social cognition. However, as recently stated by de Vignemont and Singer (2006), “There are probably nearly as many definitions of empathy as people working on the topic” (p. 435).

The problematic nature of empathy and of its functional characteristics is not a prerogative of the neuroscientific debate. Indeed, it also involves psychoanalytic thought, as clearly epitomized by the two papers by Aragno and Zepf and Hartmann that I will briefly comment on. One of the topics of debate in psychoanalysis concerns how to relate the notion of empathy with the concepts of transference and countertransference. Aragno considers empathy an automatic and direct mode of access to the inner world of the other, typical of daily social interactions, that in psychoanalytic practice, however, must be employed deliberately within an interpretive disposition, from a referential dispositional stance, as it were. Zepf and Hartmann, by contrast, focus more on the clinical relevance of empathy and emphasize how empathic understanding is the outcome of psychic processes enabling the deliberate use of countertransference for the purpose of knowing what is in the analysand's mind.

Both articles relate their theoretical and clinical arguments to the results of empirical research in developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience, though taking radically different attitudes.

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