Pain can be contagious

Dr Giummarra has developed a new tool to characterise the reactions people have to pain in others. Credit: iStock

(Medical Xpress)—The pain sensations of others can be felt by some people, just by witnessing their agony, according to new research.

A Monash University study into the phenomenon known as somatic contagion found almost one in three people could feel pain when they see others experience pain. It identified two groups of people that were prone to this response - those who acquire it following trauma, injury such as or , and those with the condition present at birth, known as the congenital variant.

Presenting her findings at the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists' annual scientific meeting in Melbourne earlier this week, Dr Melita Giummarra, from the School of Psychology and Psychiatry, said in some cases people suffered severe in response to another person's pain.

"My research is now beginning to differentiate between at least these two unique profiles of somatic contagion," Dr Giummarra said.

"While the congenital variant appears to involve a blurring of the boundary between self and other, with heightened empathy, acquired somatic contagion involves reduced empathic concern for others, but increased personal distress.

"This suggests that the pain triggered corresponds to a focus on their own rather than that of others."

Most people experience emotional discomfort when they witness pain in another person and neuroimaging studies have shown that this is linked to activation in the that are also involved in the of pain.

Dr Giummarra said for some people the pain they 'absorb' mirrors the location and site of the pain in another they are witnessing and is generally localised.

"We know that the same regions of the brain are activated for these groups of people as when they experience their own pain. First in emotional regions but then there is also sensory activation. It is a vicarious – it literally triggers their pain, Dr Giummarra said"

Dr Giummarra has developed a new tool to characterise the reactions people have to pain in others that is also sensitive to somatic contagion – the for Pain Scale.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

I feel your pain: Neural mechanisms of empathy

Jan 28, 2009

Is it possible to share a pain that you observe in another but have never actually experienced yourself? A new study uses a sophisticated brain-imaging technique to try and answer this question. The research, published by ...

Broken hearts really hurt

Feb 22, 2012

"Broken-hearted" isn't just a metaphor -- social pain and physical pain have a lot in common, according to Naomi Eisenberger of the University of Califiornia-Los Angeles, the author of a new paper published in Current Di ...

Recommended for you

Screenagers face troubling addictions from an early age

17 hours ago

In 1997, Douglas Rushkoff boldly predicted the emergence a new caste of tech-literate adolescents. He argued that the children of his day would soon blossom into "screenagers", endowed with effortless advantages over their parents, ...

Better memory at ideal temperature

17 hours ago

People's working memory functions better if they are working in an ambient temperature where they feel most comfortable. That is what Leiden psychologists Lorenza Colzato and Roberta Sellaro conclude after having conducted ...

User comments