• Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies
    Inaugural Presentation of Vice-Chancellor's Lecture Series: "Sites of Trauma, Sites of Conscience"

    Attentive Audience - "An opportunity for dialogue with public, including young thinkers with intruguing ideas and insight on issues related to historical trauma and memory"

  • Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies
    Department of Peace Studies Research; Uppsala University
    Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela presenting a lecture with Emeritus Professor Irvin Staub, Peace and Conflict Studies Research Department, Uppsala University.
  • Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies
    Vice-Chancellor's Lecture Series: "Narrating Rape during the South African War" by Emeritus Prof Ant
    Profs Lucius Botes, Helene Strauss, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Antjie Krog and Dr Buhle Zuma at Prof Krog's Lecture.
  • Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies
    Postgraduate students 2015
    Doctoral and Master's students during a postgraduate students' research workshop with Prof Engela Pretorius as guest of honour.
  • Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies
    Empathic responses to video clips from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

    Melike Fourie, Post-doctoral Fellow leading brain imaging in our multidisciplinary research on empathy. 

  • Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies
    "Forgiveness, Law and Justice, Third Annual Reconciliation Lecture 2014"

    "What is Forgiveness? What is it? Why consider it? Should it be encouraged? By law, by leaders?” - Professor Martha Minow

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Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies: fMRI Empathy Study

Investigating empathy using footage from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Study

Principal Researcher:

Senior Postdoctoral Fellow:

Research Partners:

Research Assistant:

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Melike Fourie (lead researcher of fMRI aspects of study)
Mark Solms (Chair, Psychology Department, UCT)
Dan Stein (Chair, Psychiatry, UCT)

Jean Decety (Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, and Co-director
of the Brain Research Imaging Center, University of Chicago

Carol Richards (Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, and Trainee Analyst, Cape Town)

Empathy, or the capacity to share in the emotional experiences of others, has been examined from a range of perspectives, including philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis, and more recently, neuroscience. Our study draws on the unique social context of post-apartheid South Africa to explore empathy, using footage from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). We believe that the personal relevance and emotional poignancy of the TRC hearings offer a unique and ecologically valid way of exploring empathy. In addition, our study has a strong psychoanalytic component. It is thus a cross-disciplinary endeavour where we seek to combine neuro-imaging and psychoanalytical techniques in order to gain a richer understanding of complex mental phenomena.

With this study we want to further our understanding not only of the neural correlates of empathy, but also of the complex nature of cross-racial empathy and the (implicit) historical factors that may influence it, i.e., the historical experience of being white or black during apartheid, which we believe may have enduring intergenerational consequences in the way people respond to racially charged situations. We have observed such differences behaviourally, but would now like to understand how implicit aspects of racial bias affect empathic responses at a neural level.


 The aims of the study are as follows:

  1. First, we want to explore the neural correlates of empathy when perceiving real people in emotional distress. In view of the literature, which largely involves empathy for physical pain, our ecologically valid approach may greatly inform our current understanding of real-life social interaction.
  2. Second, we want to look at the effects of expressions of forgiveness and remorse on an observer’s empathic reaction to another in distress.
  3. Third, we want to explore the enduring (and possibly implicit) effects of systematic racial discrimination during apartheid on bi-directional empathic responses between black and white South Africans today.
  4. Finally, we want to explore the impact of several individual difference variables, including childhood adversity, trait guilt, and empathic concern on neural empathic responses.

Research Outputs:

Publications:  Click here to view       


Melike Fourie presented a paper entitled “Investigating empathy using footage from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission” at the International Neuropsychoanalysis Congress in New York on July 24 2014. Visit the conference website here.

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