Differences in empathy toward patients between medical and nonmedical students: an fMRI study

Shin Ah Kim, Young Mee Lee, Stephan Hamann, Sang Hee Kim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


There is growing concern about a potential decline in empathy among medical students over time. Despite the importance of empathy toward patients in medicine, it remains unclear the nature of the changes in empathy among medical students. Thus, we systematically investigated affective and cognitive empathy for patients among medical students using neuroscientific approach. Nineteen medical students who completed their fifth-year medical curriculum and 23 age- and sex-matched nonmedical students participated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Inside a brain scanner, all participants read empathy-eliciting scenarios while adopting either the patient or doctor perspective. Brain activation and self-reported ratings during the experience of empathy were obtained. Behavioral results indicated that all participants reported greater emotional negativity and empathic concern in association with the patient perspective condition than with the doctor perspective condition. Functional brain imaging results indicated that neural activity in the posterior superior temporal region implicated in goal-relevant attention reorienting was overall increased under the patient perspective than the doctor perspective condition. Relative to nonmedical students, medical students showed decreased activity in the temporoparietal region implicated in mentalizing under the patient perspective versus doctor perspective condition. Notably, this same region showed increased activity under the doctor versus patient condition in medical students relative to nonmedical students. This study is among the first to investigate the neural mechanisms of empathy among medical students and the current findings point to the cognitive empathy system as the locus of the primary brain differences associated with empathy toward patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1207-1227
Number of pages21
JournalAdvances in Health Sciences Education
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Oct
Externally publishedYes


  • Affective empathy
  • Cognitive empathy
  • Medical students
  • Patient
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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