A Recipe for Empathy: Integrating the Mirror System, Insula, Somatosensory Cortex and Motherese

Angelica Lim*, Hiroshi G. Okuno

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    25 Citations (Scopus)


    Could a robot feel authentic empathy? What exactly is empathy, and why do most humans have it? We present a model which suggests that empathy is an emergent behavior with four main elements: a mirror neuron system, somatosensory cortices, an insula, and infant-directed “baby talk” or motherese. To test our hypothesis, we implemented a robot called MEI (multimodal emotional intelligence) with these functions, and allowed it to interact with human caregivers using comfort and approval motherese, the first kinds of vocalizations heard by infants at 3 and 6 months of age. The robot synchronized in real-time to the humans through voice and movement dynamics, while training statistical models associated with its low level gut feeling (“flourishing” or “distress”, based on battery or temperature). Experiments show that the post-interaction robot associates novel happy voices with physical flourishing 90 % of the time, sad voices with distress 84 % of the time. Our results also show that a robot trained with infant-directed “attention bids” can recognize adult fear voices. Importantly, this is the first emotion system to recognize adult emotional voices after training only with motherese, suggesting that this specific parental behavior may help build emotional intelligence.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)35-49
    Number of pages15
    JournalInternational Journal of Social Robotics
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


    • Developmental robotics
    • Emotional contagion based on SIRE model
    • MEI robot
    • Robot empathy

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Computer Science


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