Physical differences in the brains of people are noted in those who respond emotionally or rationally to other's feelings.
A recent study led by Robert Eres from the Monash University's School of Psychological Sciences and colleagues looked at whether people who have more brain cells in certain areas of the brain are better at different types of empathy.
"People who are high on affective empathy are often those who get quite fearful when watching a scary movie, or start crying during a sad scene. Those who have high cognitive empathy are those who are more rational, for example a clinical psychologist counseling a client," said Eres.
The researchers used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) - a neuroimaging analysis technique that allows investigation of focal differences in brain anatomy, using the statistical approach.
Grey matter density was examined in 176 participants and their scores predicted their levels for cognitive empathy compared to affective or emotional empathy.
The results showed that people with high scores for affective empathy had greater grey matter density in the middle region of the brain (insula) while those who scored higher for cognitive empathy had greater density in the midcingulate cortex - an area above the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain.
The discovery raises new questions - like whether people could train themselves to be more empathic, and would those areas of the brain become larger if they did, or whether we can lose our ability to empathize if we don't use it enough.
"In the future we want to investigate causation by testing whether training people on empathy related tasks can lead to changes in these brain structures and investigate if damage to these brain structures, as a result of a stroke for example, can lead to empathy impairments," said Eres.