The anterior insula is an area of the brain deep within the cortex, next to the temporal lobe and behind the frontal lobe. In the past, it has been associated with the perception of pain, emotions, and the awareness of bodily sensation such as warmth, satiety, and increased activity.
Recently, researchers discovered that the anterior insula is also important for activating empathy-the ability to perceive and share another person's emotional state. Using fMRI, the researchers found that healthy people who were exposed to images of other people in pain would show activation in the anterior insula. People who had injury to other brain areas also showed activation in the anterior insula. But, people who had injury to the anterior insula showed no activation in relation to empathy, and also had difficulties accurately assessing the emotional state of the people in the images.
Reduced activation in the anterior insula may also be related to autism disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and certain dementias.
Gu X, Gao Z, Wang X, et al. Anterior insular cortex is necessary for empathetic pain perception. Brain. (October 2012).