Recovering Empathy After a Traumatic Brain Injury

nurse helping man in bed

Over 2.8 million Americans sustain mild to severe brain injuries each year. Car accidents, slip and falls, military incidents, football tackles, acts of medical negligence – these are all scenarios that can lead to the development of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for a survivor to struggle with various physical, cognitive, and behavioral side effects in the aftermath of an accident. In fact, a survivor may need to sign up for behavioral and physical therapy classes to keep their jobs, maintain their relationships, prevent cognitive decline, and safeguard their overall quality of life.

TBI is unique when compared to even the most debilitating accident injuries because it can irrevocably affect all aspects of a victim’s life, including their reasoning abilities and personality. But for family and friends, it’s often the emotional and behavioral changes that are the most devastating. TBI symptoms can include increased aggression and an inability to recognize or understand the emotions of others.

Using Film Clips to Study TBI & Empathy

According to Dr. Dawn Neuman, an Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, “Prevalence rates of problems with emotion recognition and decreased empathy after brain injury are 39% and 60% respectively. This is quite concerning for people with TBI and their family members, as this impairment has been related to worse social relations after TBI.”

Last March, Dr. Neuman and her associate, Dr. Barbra Zupan, published “Empathetic Responses to Affective Film Clips Following Brain Injury and the Association with Emotion Recognition Accuracy” on Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. To complete this fascinating study, the doctors showed film clips to 120 adults. Although the subjects were matched for age and sex, exactly 50% of the participants also suffered from moderate to severe TBI. The doctors asked the patients to watch the clips, identify how the main characters felt, and then report their own empathetic responses.

The doctors posted the following results in their study:

  • Participants with TBI did not have as many empathetic responses as their peers (79%.
  • However, they did respond with some level of empathy at least 67% of the time.
  • The empathetic responses of the participants with TBI doubled when they accurately identified a character’s emotions (understanding = empathy).
  • Participants with TBI struggled to recognize and empathize with “sad” and “fearful” emotions.

Dr. Neuman and Dr. Zupan concluded that “participants with TBI had a harder time recognizing and empathizing with sad and fearful emotions, compared to happy emotions. This was indicated by their lower recognition and empathetic responses when characters were acting sad and afraid. This means that when loved ones need comforting the most – when feeling fearful or sad – they are unlikely to get it from a partner with TBI.”

How Can This Study Help TBI Patients?

Dr. Neuman and Dr. Zupan believe that the results of this study have several important clinical implications:

  • Clinicians need to evaluate a TBI patient’s emotional recognition skills and then develop a treatment plan for any impairments.
  • Interviewing patients and their family members can help a clinician understand how much the person has changed compared to their pre-injury self.
  • Patients need to work with clinicians and therapists to relearn how to respond empathetically to others.
  • Clinicians need to develop educational programs to teach TBI survivors and their families about the common behavioral side effects associated with TBI.
  • Family members can help the patient by being more honest and explicit about their emotions.

Explore Your Legal Options with the Scarlett Law Group

Contact the award-winning brain injury attorneys at Scarlett Law Group if you’ve sustained a traumatic brain injury after a severe accident. Our experienced legal team can investigate your case, consult with specialists, and calculate your claim’s maximum value to develop a litigation strategy that reflects your financial needs and legal objectives.

Call the Scarlett Law Group at (415) 688-2176 to schedule a consultation today.