Has a friend ever winced in sympathy when you’ve hurt yourself? Or have you had a physical reaction when witnessing someone else’s pain? Is this just an empathic response, or can we really feel each other’s pain? According to recent research[i], the answer is yes.
Researchers asked 44 participants to watch 16 movies depicting people experiencing injections or sports injuries. After each movie participants were asked if it triggered pain in their own body. Those who said yes were further asked to rate the intensity, the physical and emotional qualities of the pain, and whether the pain was localised or more general. In addition, while the participants were watching the movies, the researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to scan their brains. It was found that consciously experiencing the pain of others was surprisingly prevalent – about a quarter of all participants!
Following on from this initial study, the researchers went on to explore in more depth the possible neurological underpinnings of this ‘mirror’ pain.
The original 44 participants were divided into their previous categories of Sensory/Localiser respondents, Affective/General responders and a control group comprised of the of Non-Responders. This time, participants were asked to look at 256 images depicting hands and feet going through different kinds of pain that one might experience in the real world (i.e. fingers being caught in a car door), paired with no-pain images (i.e. a hand closing a car door). After each image participants were asked to judge whether or not they experienced pain whilst viewing the image. Again, fMRI data was collected.
The researches had expected that the fMRI scans would show different brain activity in the two responder groups. Sensory/Localiser types were expected to demonstrate more activity in the somatosensory cortices (brain areas involved in processing touch). Affective/General types were expected to show more activity in brain areas such as the anterior insula, an area in the brain associated with emotions and motivation. However, this was not the case. Compared to the Non-Responders, all the participants who experienced either type of ‘mirror’ pain showed greater brain activity in all these areas. In spite of this, there were other differences that did emerge, particularly for the Sensory/Localiser sub-types. This was related to how different parts of the brain communicated with each other.
Confusing: what’s yours and what’s mine?
When the Sensory/Localiser types observed painful events, there was greater activity (compared to the Affective/General group) between the parts of their brain associated with interpersonal experience (anterior insula), and another part of their brain that is associated with the way individuals observe and process information (the right temporalparietal junction). What is understood from this unusual neural activity is that some people find it hard to distinguish other people’s experiences of pain from their own. Further studies are needed before the before the brain activity of Affective/General respondents is better understood. The researchers of this study conclude that increased activity within the pain matrix regions is a necessary and sufficient condition for the experience of vicarious pain. This is based on the notion that upon seeing pain, all individuals activate – to different degrees – the pain matrix.[ii]However only those that do so above a threshold of awareness have reportable pain-like sensations.
Feeling other’s pain
This piece has been a brief summary of what is a very complex area of research. We are only beginning to understand how the brain is involved in our experience of other people’s pain. However, even in these early days, it does appear to be the case that some of us really do feel the pain of others.
Jane Craig is an experienced chartered clinical psychologist working in the NHS and in private practice, using a variety of approaches depending on the problems you are facing. Jane sees clients from our Lewes practice.