Love flows downstream: Mothers' and children's neural representation similarity in perceiving distress of self and family

Tae Ho Lee, Yang Qu, Eva H. Telzer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


The current study aimed to capture empathy processing in an interpersonal context. Mother-adolescent dyads (N=22) each completed an empathy task during fMRI, in which they imagined the target person in distressing scenes as either themselves or their family (i.e. child for the mother, mother for the child). Using multi-voxel pattern approach, we compared neural pattern similarity for the self and family conditions and found that mothers showed greater perceptual similarity between self and child in the fusiformface area (FFA), representing high self-child overlap, whereas adolescents showed significantly less self-mother overlap. Adolescents' pattern similarity was dependent upon family relationship quality, such that they showed greater self-mother overlap with higher relationship quality, whereas mothers' pattern similarity was independent of relationship quality. Furthermore, adolescents' perceptual similarity in the FFA was associated with increased social brain activation (e.g. temporal parietal junction). Mediation analyses indicated that high relationship quality was associated with greater social brain activation, which was mediated by greater self-mother overlap in the FFA. Our findings suggest that adolescents show more distinct neural patterns in perceiving their own vs their mother's distress, and such distinction is sensitive to mother-child relationship quality. In contrast, mothers' perception for their own and child's distress is highly similar and unconditional.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1916-1927
Number of pages12
JournalSocial cognitive and affective neuroscience
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017


  • Adolescent
  • Empathy
  • Maternal empathy
  • Mother-child dyads
  • Representational similarity analysis (RSA)
  • Self-other overlap

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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