Empathy. Image: markzfilter (CC0 Public Domain)

Feeling your pain isn’t the same as feeling mine

Different brain areas are activated depending on whether you experience pain yourself or watch someone else feel pain.

The ability to experience others’ pain is a cornerstone of empathy, and binds us together in times of hardship. However, we have not yet fully understood the complex interactions in the brain that make people empathetic to others’ suffering. One possibility is that we experience others’ pain through the activation of the same brain regions as those that enable us to experience physical pain ourselves.

To test this idea, Anjali Krishnan and colleagues compared patterns of brain activity in human volunteers as they experienced pain (from heat being applied to their forearm or foot) or watched images of others’ hands or feet being injured. While watching these images, the volunteers were asked to try to imagine that the injuries were happening to their own bodies.

The patterns of brain activity that arose when the volunteers observed someone else in pain did not overlap with the patterns produced when the volunteers experienced pain themselves. Instead, seeing someone else in pain activated regions involved in taking another person’s perspective. This process, which is known as mentalizing, involves thinking about the other person’s thoughts, intentions and preferences. Thus within the brain, the experience of observing someone else in pain is distinct from that of experiencing physical pain in oneself.

The results presented by Krishnan and colleagues raise new questions about how the brain regions involved in empathy help us to relate to other people when they experience different types of pain. Future studies should explore the factors that influence our ability to adopt another’s perspective, and whether it might be possible to improve this ability.

To find out more

Listen to Anjali Krishnan talk about human migrations in Africa in episode 30 of the eLife podcast.
Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Somatic and vicarious pain are represented by dissociable multivariate brain patterns” (June 14, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.