The Neural Substrates of Jean Decety


Dr. Jean Decety is the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, and has been doing innovative research to determine the neural mechanisms of morality, empathy, social connection, and movement to name a few things.

Dr. Decety introduces himself:

And a citizen of the world he is! During his education, training, and professional life Dr Decety has circumnavigated globe and lived for significant periods in Lyon (France), Seattle, Washington (US), Capetown (South Africa), SwedenSwitzerland, and most recently, Chicago (US). That global perspective fits his global approach: learn everything because it is all fascinating and study complex issues because they present the opportunity for the greatest learning.

In his early life, young Jean was raised by an artistic (piano player) and vibrant mother and a strict father who was a pilot in the Armee de l’Air Francais (French Air Force). This translated to living his childhood in multiple locations and experiencing many different areas of the world. His primary education was largely completed as a boarding school student in Switzerland and from there he drew on topics across the sciences — all were fascinating for young Jean who had an early passion for learning. Physics, math, biology, all were appealing for Jean in his early years.

In his recollection, Dr. Decety’s first major inspiration for his future professional interest in neuroscience was motivated by reading a book from Jean-Pierre Changeux entitled L’Homme Neuronal (Neuronal Man). He describes that experience in the following excerpt:

On a beach in Cannes, listening to the lapping waves, and reading J-P Changeux. As he describes, in the brain with these emerging methods were keys to understanding the big questions of humanity. Importantly, those keys were accessible somewhere in a lab in Sweden. Grasping this moment, Jean writes a letter to David Ingvar in Sweden requesting an opportunity to work with him. They enact a plan, find the funding, and off he goes: a new scientific journey, a new country, and the world of neuroscience just developing into its possibilities in the late 1980’s. Jean Decety was, in many ways, uniquely qualified to contribute to this field. He had completed an undergraduate degree in Neuropsychology with a Psychophysiology minor. During the mid-1980’s Jean had also completed three master’s degrees in Neuropsychology, in Cognition, and in Biomedical engineering. Three masters degrees covering  everything from the physics and engineering of neuroscience to the experimental and cognitive functions of neural mechanisms.

As described in that chapter from L’Homme Neuronal Dr. Ingvar was interested in using  brain imaging (PET, fMRI, etc) to visualize the neural circuitry that supported mental behaviors. In working with Dr. Ingvar  and in conjunction with the faculty of Universite de Claude Bernard in Lyon where Jean completed his PhD, they began the seminal work demonstrating the relationship between the mental visualization of motor activity and real/enacted motor behaviors. Importantly, and as has now been well established thanks in large part to Decety and colleagues, is the finding that the mental visualization of motor behaviors is supported by the same neural substrates as real motor behaviors. As they demonstrated, merely thinking about walking or running causes an increase in heart rate and respiration that parallels the real activity.

It is an exciting finding, but also a very reasonable one if we reject dualism and accept the mind as function of the brain. It should be predicted that the brain controls arousal in autonomic system. It should be predicted that engaging parts of the brain for action would effect real changes in the preparedness for action by recruiting the appropriate areas of the brain. While these are reasonable phenomena, it required Decety and colleagues to demonstrate the phenomena in the neural mechanisms. Importantly, it goes back to something Dr. Changeux and echoed in Jean’s recollection: the mind is what the brain does. If the person needs to run, jump, or dance, the brain needs to make it so. Conjuring that mental imagery replicates an important part of that neural process, only omitting the additional neural circuitry to enact the actual motor commands. Still, the organization, sequencing,  and neural response of the brain are engaged whether thinking about or actually doing an activity.

The motor behaviors are an important part of Dr. Decety’s research and critically they set up a theoretical approach that would be replicated in his future paradigms. This early research demonstrated the power of neuroimaging for demonstrating commonalities vs. independent regions of processing  for mental and behavioral events and their respective neural substrates.

While the theoretical approach remained consistent, things changed in Dr. Decety’s life. In the 1990’s, while working at INSERM in Lyon, Dr. Decety and his family welcomed their first child. Soon after they experienced the joy of a second child. And he was overcome! He experienced the powerful emotional connection to his sons, and did so as a true neuroscientist. The emotional experience was raw, beautiful, and totally fulfilling. But in embracing this emotional attachment he wondered about his experience. What in the brain made this possible? How was his experience of this bond instantiated in the mechanisms of his neurons. This experience motivated him into a new phase of his research on a journey to explore the mechanisms of sympathy, empathy, and social connection.

In this excerpt Dr. Decety’s how his children affected his professional interests:

Dr. Decety dived  deeply into the developmental and evolutionary biology literature, once again working aggressively to find the state of understanding and possible mechanisms of this attachment he was experiencing.  In the early 2000’s another aspect of his research emerged. Specific empathy to the pain of others became another critical topic as he engaged in this new line of research.

In the following excerpt, Dr. Decety describes an incident that sensitized him to this interest:

Again, the emotions are raw and visceral. There is an experience of real pain in witnessing the brutality of this event. But there is also the moment of reassessment as understanding of the event adds context. Nonetheless, in witnessing this and from his recent movement in research towards the consideration of empathy, Dr. Decety embarked on this new area:  pain empathy. He used photographs of cringe-worthy moments: stubbing a toe, slamming fingers in a heavy car door, stepping on a nail and looked at the neural reactions of participants observing these events. Once again, he was able to determine the common substrates from viewing pain was the elicitation activity in the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) as a sympathetic reaction to the pain (the neural pathway associated with the physical experience of pain). He went further: what if you show those pictures to those with psychopathy and/or children with conduct disorders? If you show painful events to those known to bully and cause pain,  how do their brains respond?

Here Dr. Decety describes that response:

Curious, right? The sympathetic reaction to pain of another occurs, but so, too, is the reaction of another pathway associated with positive emotions. Possible feelings  of reinforcement such as pleasure or joy emerged along with the empathetic response to pain. It is something different and something very unexpected.

If you are curious, and I certainly was, those pictures to demonstrate a painful event all came from his own camera.  He staged pictures of himself, his family members and friends designed to elicit the appropriate response in this research. No actual persons were harmed in the making of his painful photos, but they must have had a lot of fun staging scenes designed to be painfully evocative.

Most recently, and where Dr. Decety is devoting his passion now, is to the neuroscience of morality. It’s a big topic, a complex issue, and one that draws on all that he’s worked with previously and much more. He is very sensitive to separating morality from empathy, and the separate evolutionary pressures that might function with either.  There is much more to tell and I look forward to sharing more from his life and research in the book!


Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Decety:

Blakemore, S. J., & Decety, J. (2001). From the perception of action to the understanding of intention. Nature Reviews Neuroscience2(8), 561-567.

Cowell, J., & Decety, J. (2015). Precursors to morality in development as a complex interplay between neural, socio-environmental, and behavioral facets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (41), 12657-12662.

Decety, J. (1996). Do imagined and executed actions share the same neural substrate?Cognitive Brain Research3(2), 87-93.

Decety, J., & Chaminade, T. (2003). Neural correlates of feeling sympathyNeuropsychologia41(2), 127-138.

Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathyTrends in Cognitive Sciences18(7), 337-339.

Decety, J., & Grèzes, J. (1999). Neural mechanisms subserving the perception of human actionsTrends in Cognitive Sciences3(5), 172-178.

Decety, J., & Grèzes, J. (2006). The power of simulation: imagining one’s own and other’s behaviorBrain Research1079(1), 4-14.

Decety, J., Grezes, J., Costes, N., Perani, D., Jeannerod, M., Procyk, E., Gassi, F., & Fazio, F. (1997). Brain activity during observation of actions. Influence of action content and subject’s strategyBrain: A Journal of Neurology120(10), 1763-1777.

Decety, J. E., & Ickes, W. E. (2009). The social neuroscience of empathy. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathyBehavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews3(2), 71-100.

Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2006). A social-neuroscience perspective on empathyCurrent Directions in Psychological Science15(2), 54-58.

Decety, J., Jackson, P. L., Sommerville, J. A., Chaminade, T., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2004). The neural bases of cooperation and competition: an fMRI investigationNeuroImage23(2), 744-751.

Decety, J., & Sommerville, J. A. (2003). Shared representations between self and other: a social cognitive neuroscience viewTrends in Cognitive Sciences7(12), 527-533.

Jackson, P. L., Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2005). How do we perceive the pain of others? A window into the neural processes involved in empathyNeuroImage24(3), 771-779.

Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2003). What imitation tells us about social cognition: a rapprochement between developmental psychology and cognitive neurosciencePhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences358(1431), 491-500.

Ruby, P., & Decety, J. (2001). Effect of subjective perspective taking during simulation of action: a PET investigation of agency. Nature Neuroscience4(5), 546-550.

Yoder, K. J., & Decety, J. (2014). The good, the bad, and the just: Justice sensitivity predicts neural response during moral evaluation of actions performed by others. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(12), 4161-4166.


(Note* Photo of Dr. Decety in his office, in front of an image on his wall that bridges him along the shaky path from here to there)

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