Carl Rogers Meets the Neurosciences: Insights from Social Neuroscience for Client-Centered Therapy

  • Giorgia Silani
  • Alberto Zucconi
  • Claus Lamm


Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, a major component of what has been termed “social intelligence,” is one of the crucial elements of Carl Rogers’ therapy. In the past few years, social neuroscience has started to shed light on the neural mechanisms underlying empathic brain responses, by defining the neuronal networks underlying the cognitive and affective processes associated with this complex social ability. Similarly, cognitive mechanisms, such as self–other distinction, emotional awareness, and regulation of your own emotion, all concepts postulated in the theoretical framework of the client-centered therapy, have been the focus of interest of social neuroscience in the last decade. In this chapter, we will give an overview of the state of the art of brain research on empathy and related concepts, in order to support the case that neuroscientific research can inform client-centered therapy (and the other way round).


Neuroscience Empathy Perspective taking Self–other distinction Self-awareness Emotion regulation Client-centered therapy 


  1. Anfossi, M., Verlato, L. M., & Zucconi, A. (2008). Guarire o curare?. Bari: La Meridiana.Google Scholar
  2. Avenanti, A., Bueti, D., Galati, G., & Aglioti, S. M. (2005). Transcranial magnetic stimulation high lights the sensorimotor side of empathy for pain. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 955–960.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barrett-Lennard, G. T. (2005). Relationship at the centre: Healing in a troubled world. London: Whurr/Wiley.Google Scholar
  4. Batson, C. D., Sager, K., Garst, E., Kang, M., Rubchinsky, K., & Dawson, K. (1997). Is empathy induced helping due to self-other merging? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 495–509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berlucchi, G., & Aglioti, S. (1997). The body in the brain: Neural bases of corporeal awareness. Trends in Neurosciences, 20, 560–564.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bird, G., Silani, G., Brindley, R., White, S., Frith, U., & Singer, T. (2010). Empathic brain responses in insula are modulated by levels of alexithymia but not autism. Brain, 133(5), 1515–1525.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blakemore, S.-J., & Frith, C. D. (2003). Self-awareness and action. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 13, 219–224.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blanke, O., & Arzy, S. (2005). The out-of-body experience: disturbed self-processing at the temporo-parietal junction. Neuroscientist, 11, 16–24.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cacioppo, J. T. (1994). Social neuroscience: Autonomic, neuroendocrine, and immune responses to stress. Psychophysiology, 31, 113–128.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cacioppo, T. J., et al. (Eds.). (2002). Foundations in social neurosciences. Cambridge: The MIT Press, Mass.Google Scholar
  11. Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., & Decety, J. (2011). Social neuroscience. In A. W. Kruglanski & W. Stroebe (Eds.), Handbook of the history of social psychology. New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  12. Chaminade, T., & Decety, J. (2002). Leader or follower? Involvement of the inferior parietal lobule in agency. NeuroReport, 13, 1975–1978.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cozolino, L. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationship. Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. NY: Norton & Co.Google Scholar
  14. Cozolino, L. J. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy. Healing the social brain (2nd ed.). NY: WW Norton & Co.Google Scholar
  15. de Gelder, B., Snyder, J., Greve, D., Gerard, G., & Hadjikhani, N. (2004). Fear fosters flight: a mechanism for fear contagion when perceiving emotion expressed by a whole body. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 16701–16706.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Decety, J. (2011). The neuroevolution of empathy (Vol. 1231 pp. 35–45). NY: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.Google Scholar
  17. Decety, J., & Grèzes, J. (2006). The power of simulation: imagining one’s own and other’s behavior. Brain Research, 1079(1), 4–14.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3, 71–100.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2007). The role of the right temporoparietal junction in social interaction: How low-level computational processes contribute to meta-cognition. The Neuroscientist, 13, 580–593.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2009). Empathy versus personal distress. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  21. Decety, J., & Skelly, L. (2011). The neural underpinnings of the experience of empathy: Lessons for psychopathy. In K. Ochsner & S. Kosslyn (Eds.), The oxford handbook of cognitive neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Decety, J., Chaminade, T., Grèzes, J., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2002). A PET exploration of the neural mechanisms involved in reciprocal imitation. Neuroimage, 15, 265–272.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Derryberry, D., & Rothbart, M. K. (1988). Arousal, affect, and attention as components of temperament. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 958–966.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. DeVries, A. C., Glasper, E. R., & Detillion, C. E. (2003). Social modulation of stress responses. Physiology and Behavior, 79, 399–407.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D. (2000). The heroic client. Doing client-directed, outcome-informed therapy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  26. Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Murphy, B., Karbon, M., Maszk, P., Smith, M., et al. (1994). The relations of emotionality and regulation to dispositional and situational empathy related responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 776–797.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., Spinrad, T. L., Fabes, R. A., Shepard, S. A., Reiser, M., et al. (2001). The relations of regulation and emotionality to children’s externalizing and internalizing problem behavior. Child Development, 72, 1112–1134.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Eisenberg, N., Smith, C. L., Sadovsky, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2004). Effortful control. In: R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.) Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 259–282). New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  29. Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). The pain of social disconnection: Examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.Google Scholar
  30. Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290–292.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Elizuya, B., & Rochlofs, K. (2005). Cortisol: Induced impairments of working memory requires acute sympathetic activation behavior. Neuroscience, 119, 98–103.Google Scholar
  32. Elliott, R., & Zucconi, A. (2009). Organization and conceptual framework for practice-based research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy and psychotherapy training. In M. Barkham, G. Hardy, & J. Mellor-Clark (Eds.), A core approach to delivering practice-based evidence in counselling and the psychological therapies. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  33. Farrer, C., & Frith, C. D. (2002). Experiencing oneself versus another person as being the cause of an action: the neural correlates of the experience of agency. Neuroimage, 15, 596–603.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Farrer, C., Franck, N., Georgieff, N., Frith, C. D., Decety, J., & Jeannerod, M. (2003). Modulating the experience of agency: A positron emission tomography study. Neuroimage, 18, 324–333.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Gallup, G. G. (1982). Self-awareness and the emergence of the mind in primates. American Journal of Primatology, 2, 237–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Goldman, I. A. (2008). Social epistemology: Theory and applications. UK: Royal Institute of Philosophy.Google Scholar
  37. Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 96–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Horvath, A. O. (2001). The alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory/Research/Practice/Training, 38(4), 365–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Horvath, A. O., & Greenberg, L. S. (Eds.). (1994). The working alliance: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  40. Horvath, A. O., Del Re, A., Flückiger, C., & Symonds, D. (2011). Alliance in individual psychotherapy. In J. C. Norcross (Ed.), Psychotherapy relationships that work (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Hubble, A. M., & Miller, D. S. (2004). The client: Psychotherapy missing link for promoting a positive psychology. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  42. Jackson, P. L., & Decety, J. (2004). Motor cognition: A new paradigm to study self other interactions. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 14, 259–263.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 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 empathy. Neuroimage, 24, 771–779.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Jackson, P. L., Brunet, E., Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2006a). Empathy examined through the neural mechanisms involved in imagining how I feel versus how you feel pain. Neuropsychologia, 44, 752–761.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Jackson, P. L., Rainville, P., & Decety, J. (2006b). To what extent do we share the pain of others? Insight from the neural bases of pain empathy. Pain, 125, 5–9.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Jeannerod, M. (2003). The mechanism of self-recognition in humans. Behavioral and Brain Research, 142, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kalisch, R., Wiech, K., Critchley, H. D., Seymour, B., ÒDoherty, J. P., Oakley, D. A., et al. (2005). Anxiety reduction through detachment: subjective, physiological, and neural effects. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17, 874–883.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Keysers, C., Wicker, B., Gazzola, V., Anton, J. L., Fogassi, L., & Gallese, V. (2004). A touching sight: SII/PV activation during the observation and experience of touch. Neuron, 42, 335–346.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Krupnick, J. L., et al. (1996). The role of therapeutic alliance in psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy outcome: Findings in the national institute of mental health treatment of depression collaborative research program. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 532–539.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Lamm, C., Batson, C. D., & Decety, J. (2007). The neural basis of human empathy: Effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 6, 1146–1163.Google Scholar
  51. Lamm, C., Decety, J., & Singer, T. (2011). Meta-analytic evidence for common and distinct neural networks associated with directly experienced pain and empathy for pain. NeuroImage, 54, 2492–2502.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Larson, D. G. (1993). The helper’s journey: Working with people facing grief, loss, and life-threatening illness. Champaign: Research Press.Google Scholar
  53. LeDoux, J. E. (2000). Emotion circuits in the brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 23, 155–184.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Leube, D. T., Knoblich, G., Erb, M., Grodd, W., Bartels, M., & Kircher, T. T. J. (2003). The neural correlates of perceiving one’s own movements. Neuroimage, 20, 2084–2090.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Lux, M. (2010). The magic of encounter: The person-centered approach and the neurosciences. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, 9(4), 274–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Merkel, R., Boer, G., Fegert, J., Galert, T., Hartmann, D., Nuttin, B., et al. (2007). Intervening in the brain. Changing psyche and society. Heidelberg: Springer.Google Scholar
  57. Miller, S. D., Duncan, B. L., & Hubble, M. A. (1997). Escape from Babel: Toward an unifying language for psychotherapy practice. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  58. Morrison, I., Lloyd, D., di Pellegrino, G., & Roberts, N. (2004). Vicarious responses to pain in anterior cingulated cortex is empathy a multisensory issue? Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 4, 270–278.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Motschning-Pitrik, R., & Lux, M. (2008). The Person-centered approach meets neuroscience: Mutual support for C. R. Rogers’s and A. Damasio’s Theories. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 48(3), 287–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Nemiah, J. C., Freyberg, H., & Sifneos, P. E. (1976). Modern trends in psychosomatic medicine. In: O. W. Hill (Ed.), pp. 430–439 London: Butterworths.Google Scholar
  61. Norcross, J. C. (Ed.). (2011). Psychotherapy relationships that work (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review in Neuroscience, 27, 169–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client centered therapy; its current practice, implication and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  64. Rogers, C.R. (1958). The Characteristic of a Helping Relationship. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 37, 6–16.Google Scholar
  65. Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships, as developed in the client-centered framework. In: S. Koch (Ed.). Psychology. A study of a science (Vol. 3 pp. 184–256): Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: Hill.Google Scholar
  66. Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  67. Rogers, C. R. (1967). The therapeutic relationship and its impact: A study of psychotherapy with schizophrenics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  68. Ruby, P., & Decety, J. (2004). How would you feel versus how do you think she would feel? A neuroimaging study of perspective taking with social emotions. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19, 988–999.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Russell, J. (1996). Agency and its role in mental development. Hove: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  70. Schore, A. N. (2002a). The right brain as the neurobiologicalsubstratum of Freud’s dynamic unconscious. In D. Scharff (Ed.), The psychoanalytic century: Freud’s legacy for the future. New York: The Other Press.Google Scholar
  71. Schore, A. N. (2002b). Advances in neuropsychoanalysis, attachment theory, and trauma research: Implications for self psychology. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 22, 433–484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Schore, A. N. (2003a). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self. W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  73. Schore, A. N. (2003b). Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self. W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  74. Schore, A. N. (2005). Attachment, affect regulation, and the developing right brain: linking developmental neuroscience to pediatrics. Pediatrics in Review, 26, 204–212.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Schore, A. N. (2008). Shore Modern attachment theory: the central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36, 9–20.Google Scholar
  76. Schore, A. N. (2009). Attachment trauma and the developing right brain: Origins of pathological dissociation. in P.F. Dell, & J.A. O’Neil (Eds.), Dissociation and the dissociative disorders: DSM-V and beyond (pp. 107–141). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  77. Silani, G., Bird, G., Brindley, R., Singer, T., Frith, C. & Frith, U. (2008). Levels of emotional awareness and autism: an fMRI study. Social Neuroscience 3, 97–112.Google Scholar
  78. Singer, T., & Lamm, C. (2009). The social neuroscience of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1156, 81–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2004). Empathy for pain involves the affective but not the sensory components of pain. Science, 303, 1157–1161.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Smith, A. (1759). The theory of moral sentiments. In: S. M. Soares. MetaLibri, 2005.Google Scholar
  81. Thompson, E. (2001). Empathy and consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 1–32.Google Scholar
  82. Wampold, B. E. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. NJ: Erlbaum, Mahwah.Google Scholar
  83. Watson, J. C. (2011). The process of growth and transformation: Extending the process model. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, 10(1), 11–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Wicker, B., Keysers, C., Plailly, J., Royet, J. P., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G. (2003). Both of us disgusted in my insula: the common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. Neuron, 40, 655–664.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Wiech, K., Seymour, B., Kalish, R., Stephan, K. E., Koltzenburg, M., Driver, J., et al. (2005). Modulation of pain processing in hyperalgesia by cognitive demand. Neuroimage, 27, 59–69.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Zelazo, P. D. (2004). The development of conscious control in childhood. Trends in Cognitive Science, 8, 12–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Zucconi, A. (2008). Effective helping relationships: focus on illness or on health and well being? In B. Lewitt (Ed.), Reflections of human potential: The person centered approach as a positive psychology. UK: PCC Books.Google Scholar
  88. Zucconi, A. E., & Dattola, G. (2007). La relazione terapeutica nella terapia Centrata sul cliente. In: P. Petrini, & A. Zucconi (Eds.) La relazione che cura. Roma: Alpes.Google Scholar
  89. Zucconi, A., & Howell, P. (2003). Promuovere la salute con un approccio centrato sulla persona. Bari: La Meridiana. p. 154Google Scholar
  90. Zucconi, A., & Silani, G. (2008). Le conferme delle neuroscienze alle ipotesi della Psicoterapia Centrata sul Cliente di Carl Rogers ed alla teoria dei fattori comuni delle psicoterapie. Idee in Psicoterapia 1(3).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International School for Advanced Studies—SISSATriesteItaly
  2. 2.IACPRomaItaly
  3. 3.University of ViennaViennaAustria

Personalised recommendations