Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Neuroimage. 2008 Apr 15;40(3):1419-28. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.12.056. Epub 2008 Jan 11

Seeing the pain of others while being in pain: a laser-evoked potentials study

Seeing actions, emotions and feelings of other individuals may activate resonant mechanisms that allow the empathic understanding of others' states. Being crucial for implementing pro-social behaviors, empathy is considered as inherently altruistic. Here we explored whether the personal experience of pain make individuals less inclined to share others' pain. We used laser-evoked potentials (LEPs) to explore whether observation of painful or non-noxious stimuli delivered to a stranger model induced any modulation in the pain system of onlookers who were suffering from pain induced by the laser stimuli. After LEPs recording, participants rated intensity and unpleasantness of the laser pain, and of the pain induced by the movie in themselves and in the model. Mere observation of needles penetrating the model's hand brought about a specific reduction of the N1/P1 LEP component, related to the activation of somatic nodes of the pain matrix. Such reduction is stronger in onlookers who rated the pain intensity induced by the pain movie as higher in themselves and lower in the model. Conversely, the N2a-P2 component, supposedly associated to affective pain qualities, did not show any specific modulation during observation of others' pain. Thus, viewing 'flesh and bone' pain in others specifically modulates neural activity in the pain matrix sensory node. Moreover, this socially-derived inhibitory effect is correlated with the intensity of the pain attributed to self rather than to others suggesting that being in pain may bias the empathic relation with stranger models towards self-centred instead than other-related stances.

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