Empathy Alters Pain Perception
The issue of empathy has intrigued scientists and researchers and they have been trying to determine the impact of empathy on pain.
In light of recent studies that have demonstrated a connection between pain and observing someone else in pain, the authors of this article predicted that "the empathetic states would induce sensitization of cortical areas" involved in the perception of pain.
Researchers recruited 48 subjects, aged between 18 and 31 years, to experience painful or non-painful stimuli while watching videos designed to make the subject feel neutral about an actor, compassionate or negative.
A fourth video was of the actor experiencing pain or not experiencing pain, alternating in two-minute segments. All subjects watched one of the first three and the fourth video. While watching the fourth video, the subjects experienced painful stimuli (heat) to one hand.
Using a 10-point Visual Analog scale (VAS), where 0 means no pain and 10 means the most severe possible, the subjects rated their own pain levels and estimated the actor's pain level.
The subjects were asked to complete two trait empathy questionnaires, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index and the Balanced Emotional/Empathy Scale.
The results showed that the groups that watched the video designed to evoke compassion (Positive Affective Link, or AFF+) and those who watched the low empathy video (Negative Affective Line, or AFF-) did not have any differences in their pain ratings at baseline (before the "pain" video), however, after the "pain" video was viewed, subjects who had seen the AFF+ video reported a higher pain sensation than did those who watched the AFF- video. The more they empathized with the actor, the higher the pain level.
The authors concluded that their findings support pervious study finding and that empathy does play a role in intensity of pain, as well as in pain processing.
Marco L. Loggia, Jeffrey S. Mogi, M. Catherine Bushnell. Empathy Hurts: Compassion for another increases both sensory and affective components of pain perception. In Pain. May 2008. Vol. 136. No. 1-2. Pp. 168-176.
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