Courtesy of my favourite science magazine
Humans are hardwired to feel others' pain
19:00 19 February 04
NewScientist.com news service
Humans are hardwired to feel empathy, suggests a new imaging study showing that certain pain-processing regions of the brain light up when a loved-one is hurt.
But no one actually "feels" the physical pain of the ones they love. The UK researchers suggest that empathy is the result of our brain running a virtual simulation that represents only part of the other person's experience.
"That' s probably why empathy doesn't feel like pain in your hand," says Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the University College London, who led the study. "It feels like when you anticipate your own pain. Your heart races, your emotions are engaged. It's like a smaller copy of the overall experience."
Previous imaging studies have measured the effect of viewing movies or still pictures portraying emotional actors. But Singer's team was interested in empathy at its most abstract level.
"It's like when you read a book and you cry about a character without ever seeing them," she told New Scientist. "This is a symbolic empathy that as far as we know only humans are capable of."
To hunt for this form of empathy, the researchers recruited 16 heterosexual couples who were romantically involved and assumed to be attuned to each others feelings. Each man and woman had electrodes attached to their right hand capable of delivering a mild, ticklish shock or a stinging, short jolt of pain.
Each woman then had her brain scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging, while being able to view only the right hand of her beau sitting beside her. Unable to see her loved one's face, her only clue to his state was conveyed symbolically by a set of lights indicating whether he was receiving a mild shock or a stinging jolt.
When the women were subjected to a strong shock, a whole series of brain regions lit up including those on the brain's left side that physically mapped the pain to their hand. The regions of the brain - the anterior insula (AI) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) - involved in the emotional response to pain and other situations, also lit up.
But when their partners were zapped, regions physically mapping the pain were quiet while the AI and ACC and a few other regions lit up in the women's brains. And the signals from those two areas were stronger in women who reported a greater degree of empathy, suggesting these regions mediate empathy.
Singer suspects that our brain's ability to intuit the emotional response of others could have been strongly selected during evolution. "If I do something, it tells me will it make you smash me, will you kill me or will you like it? Being able to predict how others feel might have been necessary for human survival," she says.
Journal reference: Science (vol 303, p 1157)