Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Feeling empathy for a loved-one: empathy for pain activates pain-sensitive regions of the brain, says UCL study


Knowing our partner is in pain automatically triggers affective pain processing regions of our brains, according to new research by University College London (UCL) scientists. The study, published in the 20th February edition of the journal Science, asked whether empathizing with the pain of others involves the re-activation of the entire pain network underlying the processing of pain in our selves. The results suggest that empathy for pain of others only involves the affective, but not sensory component of our pain experience.

The team, at UCL’s Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, set out to find out what happens to our brains when we empathise with the feelings of others, how the brain understands how something feels for another human, and whether such empathetic responses are triggered rather automatically by the mere perception of someone else being in pain.

The UCL team investigated pain-related empathy in 16 couples, under an assumption that couples are likely to feel empathy for each other. Brain activity in the woman was assessed while painful stimulation was applied to her or to her partner’s right hand through an electrode attached to the back of the hand. Both hands were placed on a tilted board allowing the subject, with help of a mirror system, to see both hands. Behind this board was a large screen upon which flashes of different colours were presented. The colours indicated whether to expect painful or non painful stimulation. This procedure enabled to measure pain-related brain activation when pain was applied to the scanned subject (the ‘pain matrix’) as well as to her partner (empathy for pain).

The team found that not the entire ‘pain matrix’ was activated when empathizing with the pain of others. Some sensory regions of your brain code for the location and the objective intensity of the painful stimulus, while other brain regions process how unpleasant you subjectively felt the pain to be. For instance, someone involved in a car accident will hardly feel pain even if they are severly injured, while if you expect to be infected by a contagious desease, every slight scratch will feel like a burning pain.

The researchers observed that empathy for pain involved the context-dependent affective aspects of pain but not the sensory-discriminative aspects of pain. It involves the same brain regions found to be involved when you anticipate getting pain. You get aroused and emotional but you do not feel the actual pain on your hand.

“The results suggest that we use emotional representations reflecting our own subjective feeling states to understand the feelings of others. Probably, our ability to empathize has evolved from a system for representing our own internal bodily states”, says author Dr Tania Singer.

“The significance of this research is that, for the first time, brain imagers were able to study empathic processes ‘in vivo’ in the usually unnatural scanning environment and show that emotional and not cognitive processess are triggered by the mere perception of a symbol indicating that your loved-one is in pain.

“Our human capacity to ‘tune in’ to others when exposed to their feelings may explain why we do not always behave selfishly in human interactions but instead engage in altruistic, helping behaviour, suggests Dr Tania Singer.

Dominique Fourniol | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Social Sciences:

nachricht Illinois researchers researchers find tweeting in cities lower than expected
21.02.2018 | University of Illinois College of Engineering

nachricht Polluted air may pollute our morality
08.02.2018 | Association for Psychological Science

All articles from Social Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

TRAPPIST-1 planets provide clues to the nature of habitable worlds

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

The search for dark matter widens

21.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Natural enemies reduce pesticide use

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>