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Friday, January 30, 2009

Can We Always Empathize With Others' Pain?

According to a new brain-imaging study, it's possible to feel empathy for another person's pain even if you've never actually experienced that pain yourself. The study, led by Nicolas Danziger of the department of clinical neurophysiology and the Pain Center at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris, focused on patients who have congenital insensitivity to pain, a disorder that prevents them from feeling pain themselves. Previously, Danziger showed that these patients tend to underestimate the pain of others when they don't have emotional cues—"unless the observer is endowed with sufficient emphatic abilities to fully acknowledge the suffering experience of others in spite of his own insensitivity."
In this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brain activity of these patients when they were asked to imagine the feelings of a person in photo that showed the person's body parts in painful situations or facial expression of pain. They showed less activity than control subjects did in their brains' visual regions—indicating reduced emotional arousal to seeing another's pain—but, unlike the control subjects, they showed activation of brain regions involved in emotion. While they can't rely on past experiences of feeling pain, they seem to rely on their empathetic abilities to imagine the pain of others.
"Our findings," the researchers write, "underline the major role of midline structures in emotional perspective taking and in the ability to understand someone else's feelings despite the lack of any previous personal experience of it—an empathetic challenge frequently raised during human social interactions." —Heather Wax


Angela Van De Merwe said...

Sometimes, I wonder if the lack of response to others in pain is due to "over-conditioning" to stimuli, which shuts down one's emotions, such as with "TSD". Or a "conditioning" to not respond to stimuli, due to 'stoic' attitudes of "faith...