This study investigated the empathic response of postpartum women to babies in pain and the underlying neural mechanism. Postpartum women responded with more empathy and speed to babies over other stimuli compared to controls. Brain scans taken 3 months after birth showed more elevated activation in the Middle cingulate cortex/middle frontal gyrus (MCC/MFG) than the controls regardless of the task condition. When compared to the adult and neutral conditions, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) region was consistently more activated when postpartum women saw babies than controls. In addition, higher activation levels in the PCC region for the baby condition significantly correlated with faster and more empathic responses to babies. Considering that PCC is a core region for the theory of mind or mentalizing which requires cognitive reasoning to understand others, these results suggest that PCC might be a pivotal neural locus facilitating cognitive efforts to empathize with babies during the postpartum period. In a follow-up experiment at 12 months after birth, we were still able to observe higher activity in the MCC/MFG of postpartum women. However, previously observed PCC activation patterns disappeared 12 months after birth, despite the women's response patterns to babies still being maintained. These results suggest that the mentalizing process activated to empathize with babies in the early postpartum period becomes less cognitively demanding over time.
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© 2021 The Authors. Human Brain Mapping published by Wiley Periodicals LLC.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
- Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
- Clinical Neurology