Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Hum Brain Mapp. 2013 Dec;34(12):3168-81. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22133. Epub 2012 Jul 17

Their pain is not our pain: brain and autonomic correlates of empathic resonance with the pain of same and different race individuals

Recent advances in social neuroscience research have unveiled the neurophysiological correlates of race and intergroup processing. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms underlying intergroup empathy. Combining event-related fMRI with measurements of pupil dilation as an index of autonomic reactivity, we explored how race and group membership affect empathy-related responses. White and Black subjects were presented with video clips depicting white, black, and unfamiliar violet-skinned hands being either painfully penetrated by a syringe or being touched by a Q-tip. Both hemodynamic activity within areas known to be involved in the processing of first and third-person emotional experiences of pain, i.e., bilateral anterior insula, and autonomic reactivity were greater for the pain experienced by own-race compared to that of other-race and violet models. Interestingly, greater implicit racial bias predicted increased activity within the left anterior insula during the observation of own-race pain relative to other-race pain. Our findings highlight the close link between group-based segregation and empathic processing. Moreover, they demonstrate the relative influence of culturally acquired implicit attitudes and perceived similarity/familiarity with the target in shaping emotional responses to others' physical pain.

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