Humans are hardwired to feel others' pain [New Scientist]

by Limbic on February 20, 2004

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.”

See also: I Feel Your Pain – New Scientist

The ability to appreciate other people’s agony is achieved by the same parts of the brain that we use to experience pain for ourselves.

When we encounter a painful stimulus, such as an electric shock, signals travel from the site of the stimulus up to the brain. This is then translated into both a physical and an emotional response.

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