To what extent do we share feelings with others? Neuroimaging investigations of the neural mechanisms involved in the perception of pain in others may cast light on one basic component of human empathy, the interpersonal sharing of affect. In this fMRI study, participants were shown a series of still photographs of hands and feet in situations that are likely to cause pain, and a matched set of control photographs without any painful events. They were asked to assess on-line the level of pain experienced by the person in the photographs. The results demonstrated that perceiving and assessing painful situations in others was associated with significant bilateral changes in activity in several regions notably, the anterior cingulate, the anterior insula, the cerebellum, and to a lesser extent the thalamus. These regions are known to play a significant role in pain processing. Finally, the activity in the anterior cingulate was strongly correlated with the participants’ ratings of the others’ pain, suggesting that the activity of this brain region is modulated according to subjects’ reactivity to the pain of others. Our findings suggest that there is a partial cerebral commonality between perceiving pain in another individual and experiencing it oneself. This study adds to our understanding of the neurological mechanisms implicated in intersubjectivity and human empathy.
Jackson, P. L., Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2005). How do we perceive the pain of others? A window into the neural processes involved in empathy. Neuroimage, 24(3), 771-779.