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Pain & Empathy

November 19, 2008

Watching someone in pain causes viewers to feel pain themselves.


Explaining the cringe reflex…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The next time a sympathetic friend says, ‘I feel your pain," you can believe it. Researchers at Stanford University’s Systems Neuroscience and Pain Lab scanned the brain activity of volunteers as they watched videos of people getting badly hurt. They compared the scans with ones taken when the volunteers themselves were in pain from something hot applied to their arm. Dr. Sean Mackey is director of the lab.

SEAN MACKEY (Stanford University): What we found is that there is a tremendous amount of overlap in those brain regions involved with both the experience of your own pain as well as when you’re seeing someone else experience pain.

HIRSHON: Those brain regions were ones involved in monitoring and processing emotions but not ones for the actual sensing of pain. Mackey says humans evolved this empathy because it enhanced social bonds. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.