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Study 2: Exploring the Phenomenon of Empathy: A Dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience

Principal Researcher: Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Co-Researchers: Go to Collaborative Partners

Senior Research Coordinator: Melike Fourie (Postdoc Fellow)

Project Description:

Empathy, or the capacity of human beings to share in the emotional experiences of others, has been examined from a range of perspectives. In the present study we make use of neuroimaging as well as psychoanalytic techniques to investigate this complex psychological phenomenon. It is therefore a cross-disciplinary endeavour, led by experts in the field of social psychology, neuroscience, and psychoanalysis. In particular, we draw on the unique social context of post-apartheid South Africa to explore empathy by looking at Black and White adults’ empathic responses to short video clips from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). We believe that the personal relevance and emotional poignancy of footage from the TRC hearings offer a unique and ecologically valid way of exploring empathy. With this study we want to further our understanding not only of the neural correlates of empathy, but also of the complex nature of cross-racial empathy and the factors that may influence it. In addition, we want to explore the effects that expressions of forgiveness and remorse may have on an observer’s empathic reaction to another in distress.

Collaborative Partners

Partners in this research are internationally rated scholars and include two senior academics at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Psychology and Psychiatry Departments, and a professor of Psychology from Rhodes University:

  • Professor Mark Solms: internationally renowned scholar for his pioneering work on the relationship of psychoanalytic theory and brain behavior, is head of Neuro-psychology at UCT.
  • Professor Dan Stein: leading scholar in the field of neuro-imaging at UCT, is professor of Psychiatry at the UCT Medical School. He is the director of UCT’s Brain Behaviour Institute.

Student Researchers

Researchers in this project are post-graduate students studying their Honours degree in the Psychology Department:

  • Lisa Barenblatt
  • Simon Locher
  • Jénine Smith


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