Empathy for others' pain rooted in cognition rather than sensation

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The ability to understand and empathize with others' pain is grounded in cognitive neural processes rather than sensory ones, according to the results of a new study led by University of Colorado Boulder researchers.

The findings show that the act of perceiving others' (i.e., empathy for others' pain) does not appear to involve the same neural circuitry as experiencing pain in one's own body, suggesting that they are different interactions within the .

"The research suggests that empathy is a deliberative process that requires taking another person's perspective rather than being an instinctive, automatic process," said Tor Wager, the senior author of the study, director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder.

A study detailing the results was published online today in the journal eLife.

Empathy is a key cornerstone of , but the complex neural interactions underlying this behavior are not yet fully understood. Previous hypotheses have suggested that the same that allow humans to feel pain in their own bodies might activate when perceiving the pain of others.

To test this idea, the researchers compared patterns of brain activity in human volunteers as they experienced directly (via heat, shock, or pressure) in one experimental session, and watched images of others' hands or feet being injured in another experimental session. When volunteers watched images, they were asked to try to imagine that the injuries were happening to their own bodies.

The researchers found that the when the volunteers observed pain did not overlap with the brain patterns when the volunteers experienced pain themselves. Instead, while observing pain, the volunteers showed brain patterns consistent with mentalizing, which involves imagining another person's thoughts and intentions.

The results suggest that within the brain, the experience of observing someone else in pain is neurologically distinct from that of experiencing oneself.

"Most previous studies focused only on the points of similarity between these two distinct experiences in a few isolated brain regions while ignoring dissimilarities. Our new study used a more granular analysis method," said Anjali Krishnan, the lead author of the study and a post-doctoral research associate in the Institute of Cognitive Science at CU-Boulder while the research was conducted. She is currently an assistant professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

This new analysis method identified an empathy-predictive brain pattern that can be applied to new individuals to obtain a brain-related 'vicarious ,' opening new possibilities for measuring the strength of activity in brain systems that contribute to empathy.

The results may open new avenues of inquiry into how the brain regions involved in empathy help humans to relate to others when they experience different types of pain. Future studies may also explore the factors that influence one's ability to adopt another's perspective and whether it might be possible to improve this ability.


Explore further

Study suggests regulation of empathy for pain is grounded in same brain mechanism as real pain

More information: Anjali Krishnan et al, Somatic and vicarious pain are represented by dissociable multivariate brain patterns, eLife (2016). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.15166
Journal information: eLife

Citation: Empathy for others' pain rooted in cognition rather than sensation (2016, June 14) retrieved 25 August 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-06-empathy-pain-rooted-cognition-sensation.html
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Jun 14, 2016
So much for the mirror neuron hypothesis.

Jun 14, 2016
I love studies on the obvious

Someone has to break the ice.

Jun 14, 2016
"The research suggests that empathy is a deliberative process that requires taking another person's perspective rather than being an instinctive, automatic process"

-which makes sense given that we can experience empathy for members of our own tribe while experiencing emnity for members of other tribes.

This enables us to commit acts against enemies which would be considered crimes if we committed them against our bretheren.

This BTW explains the mystery of how apparently good decent ethnic Germans could participate in the holocaust. It explains how good decent soldiers from any country can commit war crimes. It explains terrorism, gang violence, cronyism.

It explains the atrocities in Rwanda and Burundi. It explains slavery. It explains most all human social interaction.

It explains the power behind religion. It explains how German protestants could drive their Catholic neighbors into their churches and burn them during the 30 Years War.

Tribalism is biological.

Jun 15, 2016
This study was contaminated by asking people to imagine the pain occurring to themselves instead of allowing the natural process to proceed. They then measured the process they asked the subjects to perform rather than the natural process which has already been observed, detected and measured in a wide range of laboratory animals.

The robust imagination of humans easily masked the more subtle response of the mirror neurons. They asked the subjects to corrupt the experiment and then measured the corruption they ordered.

It is like trying to determine if a subject will look in certain direction upon hearing a stimulus and then telling the subject in which direction to look before the experiment, an act that clearly contaminates the results, as was done in this amateurish uncontrolled study that made a very basic error.

Jun 15, 2016
They have actually instructed the subjects to consciously override the natural process they set out to measure. The underlying assumption is that mirror neurons fire under conscious wilful control and yet all the experiments done on non-humans have been done without any instruction and they have found the mirror neuron system.

What were they thinking?

It is like testing people to find out if they can see without their glasses and then instructing them to put on their glasses before testing. It totally defeats the purpose of the study.

If anything, they tested the effect of priming and the conscious overriding of the natural process and discovered that conscious intervention extinguishes the natural process...

Jun 15, 2016
This study was contaminated by asking people to imagine the pain occurring to themselves
Uh thats what empathy is isnt it?
What were they thinking?
Everything youre not?

Jul 04, 2016
@TheGhostofOtto1923

They want to test the natural process involving mirror neurons, yet they are asking people to over-ride their natural process and respond pre-emptively, that is, before the natural process kicks in.

If we were studying the reflex respond upon touching a hot plate, would the natural response be tested if we asked subjects to rapidly withdraw their hand upon touching the hotplate? Could we then conclude that there was no natural hand withdrawal reflex??

The experiment did exactly the same with the empathy experiment except that it was the natural empathic response they wanted to test and yet they contaminated their own experiment by asking participants to override their natural responses...

A very amateurish error. Mirror neurons have been established to exist in animals that have no language, that is, they are not instructed to behave empathically.

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