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).
Dominique Fourniol | alfa
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