Recent studies demonstrate that some brain structures activated by pain are also engaged when an individual observes someone else in pain, and that these empathy-related responses are modulated as a function of the affective link between the empath and the individual in pain. In this study we test the hypothesis that empathy-evoked activation in the pain network leads to heightened pain perception. After inducing in half of our subjects a state of high empathy for an actor and in the other half a state of low empathy towards him, we measured the sensitivity to heat stimuli of various intensities in healthy participants while they watched the actor being exposed to similar stimuli. Participants in the “high-empathy” group rated painful (but not non-painful) stimuli applied to themselves as more intense and unpleasant than did those in the “low-empathy” group. Positive correlations between state empathy scores and pain ratings further suggest that this perceptual phenomenon depends on the magnitude of empathic response induced in the participants. The effects were observed when subjects watched the model receiving either neutral or painful stimuli, suggesting that it is empathy itself that alters pain perception, and not necessarily the observation of pain behaviors.
a McGill Centre for Research on Pain, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
b Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
c Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
d Department of Anaesthesia, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
e Faculty of Dentistry, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
*Corresponding author. Address: 3640 University Street, Room M/19, Montreal, Canada H3A 2B2. Tel.: +1 514 398 1271; fax: +1 514 398 7464.
Submitted February 7, 2007; received in revised form July 17, 2007; accepted July 24, 2007.