Empathic arousal is the first ontogenetic building block of empathy to appear during infancy and early childhood. As development progresses, empathic arousal becomes associated with an increasing ability to differentiate between self and other, which is a critical aspect of mature empathetic ability (Decety and Jackson, 2004). This allows for better regulation of contagious distress and understanding others mental states. In the current study, we recorded electroencephalographic event-related potentials and mu suppression induced by short visual animations that depicted painful situations in 57 typically developing children aged between 3 and 9 years as well as 15 young adults. Results indicate that the difference wave of an early automatic component (N200), indexing empathic arousal, showed an age-related decrease in amplitude. In contrast, the difference wave of late-positive potentials (LPP), associated with cognitive appraisal, showed an age-related gain. Only early LPP was detected in children, whereas both early and late LPP were observed in adults. Furthermore, as compared with adults, children showed stronger mu suppression when viewing both painful and non-painful stimuli. These findings provide neurophysiological support for the development of empathy during childhood, as indicated by a gradual decrease in emotional arousal and an increase in cognitive appraisal with age.
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