Feeling the pain of others

Study: People Literally Feel Pain of Others

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Maybe Tonight Honey, I Have a Migraine

A brain anomaly can make the saying "I know how you feel" literally true in hyper-empathetic people who actually sense that they are being touched when they witness others being touched.

The condition, known as mirror-touch synesthesia, is related to the activity of mirror neurons, cells recently discovered to fire not only when some animals perform some behavior, such as climbing a tree, but also when they watch another animal do the behavior. For "synesthetes," it's as if their mirror neurons are on overdrive.

"We often flinch when we see someone knock their arm, and this may be a weaker version of what these synesthetes experience," University College London cognitive neuroscientist Jamie Ward said.

Now scientists find these synesthetes possess an unusually strong ability to empathize with others. Further research into this condition might shed light on the roots of empathy, which could help better understand autism, schizophrenia, psychopathy and other disorders linked with empathy.

Blended experiences

Synesthesia is a condition where sensations that normally are experienced separately get blended together. The most common form is color-grapheme synesthesia, where a person experiences colors upon hearing or reading words. Others can taste words.

In mirror-touch synesthesia, when another person gets touched, the synaesthete feels a touch on their body. University College London cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore discovered a mirror-touch synesthete in 2003 by a stroke of good luck.

"I was giving a talk and mentioned synesthesia, and that anecdotally there were reports that some people felt touches they only observed, and there was a woman in the audience who asked, 'Doesn't everyone experience that? Isn't that completely normal?'" Blakemore recalled.

Until that point, that 39-year-old woman did not realize her mirror-touch synesthesia was unusual. "It was something she's always had," Blakemore told LiveScience. In fact, a cousin of hers also has it, suggesting it runs in families.

When the woman faced someone and saw that person get touched on the left cheek, she felt it on her right cheek. On the other hand, if she stood next to somebody and that person got touched on the right side, she felt a touch on her right side.

The pain of horror films

Now Ward and doctoral student Michael Banissy reveal 10 more mirror-touch synesthetes they discovered among University College London students, as well as among people who possess other types of synesthesia. (The woman that Blakemore has 11 relatives with color-grapheme synesthesia, and that woman had color-grapheme synesthesia herself when she was younger.)

The researchers had the mirror-touch synesthetes take a questionnaire designed to measure empathy. For instance, they were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as "I can tune into how someone feels rapidly and intuitively."

The mirror-touch synesthetes scored significantly higher than people without synesthesia, findings detailed in the July issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

One mirror-touch synaesthete, Alice, said "I have never been able to understand how people can enjoy looking at bloodthirsty films, or laugh at the painful misfortunes of others when I can not only not look but also feel it." Another, Jane, said she felt her synesthesia is "a positive thing because I believe it makes me more considerate about the feelings of others."

Overactive mirrors

Banissy told LiveScience that "when we observe another person being touched, we all activate areas of our brain similar to those activated when we are physically touched." In mirror-touch synesthetes, this mirror system is overactive. The resulting high level of empathy they demonstrate supports the notion that people learn to empathize by putting themselves in someone else's shoes.

"It is extraordinary to think that some people experience touch on their own body when they merely watch someone else being stroked or punched. However, this may be an exaggeration of a brain mechanism that we all possess to some degree," Ward said.

UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explained a better understanding of the mirror system could help shed light and treat autism, "which is well-known for not understanding the emotional states of others." Blakemore added such research could also help research into psychopaths, "where empathy goes wrong and people don't feel empathy in the normal way."

On a fundamental level, University of Parma cognitive neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese suggested this system "might be relevant for the ability to entertain an abstract notion of touch, such as upon watching objects touch each other."

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Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space. com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.

pain and empathy linked in the brain

The human brain processes the experience of empathy – the ability to understand another person’s pain – in a similar way to the experience of physical pain. This was the finding of a paper that specifically investigated the kind of empathy people feel when they see others in pain – but it could apply to other forms of empathy too. The results raise a number of intriguing questions, such as whether painkillers or brain damage could actually reduce our ability to feel empathy.

The researchers used a complicated experimental set up, which included using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow changes in the brain. However, brain imaging alone can’t prove a link between pain and “pain empathy”. This is because the same brain areas are activated in each case, partly because there is a lot of overlap generally between the brain areas used for feelings and emotion. Another factor is that fMRI is not a direct measure of brain activity – the blood flow measure is instead something that we infer to accompany brain activity.

fMRI was one of the tools the team used to look at how the brain processes empathy. KasugaHuang/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The authors therefore took a new approach. They investigated whether the way a drug changes how the brain processes pain and empathy for those in pain can be used to understand the similarities and differences between these two experiences.

The study is based on two experiments on a total of about 150 participants – which is an unusually large number for this kind of study. The financial expense and general inconvenience of running fMRI studies, means scientists usually just involve some 20 or 30 people.

The painkiller trick

All the participants in the study were given a tablet that they were told was an approved, highly effective, expensive, over-the-counter painkiller (to ensure it had the maximum chance of working). However, none of the participants actually had a real painkiller but a placebo. This effect, called “placebo analgesia”, has been shown to be highly effective at reducing the amount of pain one perceives. However the authors wanted to know whether it affected how pain and pain empathy are processed in the brain.

A second group of people were also given this placebo analgesia, and 15 minutes later a second tablet – a drug that reverses the action of a painkiller. However, the participants were told this tablet would enhance the action of the painkiller, so they weren’t expecting it to counteract any previous drug they were given. The authors wanted to know whether the “placebo analgesia” could be reversed in the same way real painkillers can.

After waiting for the placebo painkiller to “take effect”, and checking that it had “worked” in all people, participants underwent various experiments. These involved receiving a short painful electrical shock to the back of the hand (the strength of this had previously been matched for differences in individual levels of pain threshold – we’ll call this self pain) and watching a picture of someone they had earlier met receive the painful stimulus (we’ll call this pain empathy).

Participants were then split into two groups: some received a real and painful shock (or watched someone receive it), while others received a painless stimuli. The painless stimulus was administered in the same way as the electrical stimulus, but at a lower current.

Participants were asked to rate the amount of pain they felt during self pain and were asked to rate the level of unpleasantness they felt while watching another person receive pain (pain empathy). And they also underwent fMRI during self pain and pain empathy.

The results?

In the first experiment with the one tablet only (placebo painkiller), 53 people received real pain and 49 people received (pretend) pain stimuli. The placebo painkiller reduced the amount of pain the participants reported feeling and also reduced the amount of unpleasantness they reported feeling while watching someone else experience pain. At the same time, the fMRI scan revealed that the network of regions that usually process pain showed a reduction in activity for placebo (pretend) pain compared to real pain.

In the second experiment, where 50 participants took an additional tablet – 25 had the real drug that reverses the action of a painkiller and another 25 people a placebo. The real drug was found to reverse the effects of the placebo analgesia on self pain and also on pain empathy, each by a similar amount. This confirms that the effect of the “pretend” painkiller can be reversed in the same way that a real (drug) painkiller can.

Placebo or reality? We can feel other people’s pain. www.shutterstock.com

This means that empathy for pain is likely to be processed very similarly (in the brain) to first-hand pain. We can infer that this is because both self pain and pain empathy are changed in the same way by the painkiller-reversing drug, and because placebo analgesia also reduces pain empathy in the same way as it reduces pain. The fMRI results add further evidence that this is indeed what is going on.

Exploring empathy further

This is therefore consistent with the theory that empathy for pain occurs as a result of simulating another person’s feelings within one’s own brain. It also provides further evidence that the feelings of pain and pain empathy occur as a result of similar processes within the brain.

Further, patients who have damage and/or disease in the parts of the brain that fall within this network of pain-processing areas, often experience a reduction in ability to feel empathy for pain. This suggests that the ability to feel pain is necessary in order to experience empathy for pain.

Going forward, the research could be useful to explore empathy in other contexts. For example, the researchers suggest addressing the question of whether the pain from other events – for example social rejection – is processed in a similar way. This study certainly provides a new angle to investigate the feelings of pain and empathy – namely by manipulating two experiences to see if they are processed in similar ways.

Another suggestion is that taking painkillers may decrease one’s feeling of empathy for pain – but that topic needs further research. A way to do this could be to compare the results of this study using placebo painkillers with a similar design using real painkillers.

To feel someone else's pain as one's own

To know oneself A man among people

Lisa paces the hospital hall and cannot stop. Behind the wall, her daughter is undergoing her third session of chemotherapy. Liza imagines how chilling - and yet necessary for treatment - poison once again spreads through Natasha's veins. She thinks she feels nausea rising up her daughter's throat and painful cramps in her stomach. Lisa tells herself that she would give anything for the opportunity to be there instead of Natasha. nine0003

Alexander cannot tear himself away from the TV screen: one hundred thousand refugees do not find salvation from the war. They have been walking in the desert for many days, often without food or water. A father with a sightless look carries a dead child in his arms. The camera stops at his unwound turban, his arms vainly clutching the boy to his chest.

Alexander gets up from his chair. He is a doctor. He can't calm down. He has to do something, he wants to be there with these people. A few days later he is already in Africa, in the group "Doctors Without Borders". nine0003

When we suffer, the body mobilizes to endure. This is a well-known reaction: fight or flight! But where does the feeling that we experience the pain of another person come from? Where does this powerful impulse come from - to relieve the suffering of another, as if it is hurting ourselves right now?

At University College London, several female participants in an experiment were asked to undergo magnetic resonance imaging of the brain while their husbands were exposed to electric current 1 . They were warned a few seconds before the electric shock. In addition, each of them could see in the mirror how her husband's hand was clenched. The faces of all the women reflected the pain that the sight of the suffering of a loved one caused them.

First of all, a group of researchers led by Tanya Singer was interested in what was going on in the brains of these women. Scanning showed that they activated the same zones of emotional reactions as people who are actually affected by electric shock. nine0003

The other person's pain has become their own. Their brain "appropriated" this pain. These women, who are connected with their husbands by love, seem to have pierced the membrane that separates the “I” from the “you”.

Our brain has a connection that connects us with the joys and pains of others, with the world around us

The Yanomami Indians, to convey the state of being in love, say: “Ya pihi irakema”, which means: “I am infected by you. ” In other words, "something of you entered me and lives in me." I am no longer just me, because your feelings have now become mine. nine0003

According to the American philosopher Susan Langer, under the influence of love the shell of individual being becomes permeable 2 . Of course, not all people are equally capable of feeling this kind of empathy. Women are generally superior to men in this respect. This natural response of the brain underlies our ability to connect with other people, which is the essence of the human in us.

Mammals differ from other animals not only in that they feed on mother's milk, but also in the presence of zones in the brain that provide affective communication between children and parents, especially with the mother. nine0003

The anterior part of the cingulate gyrus of the cerebral cortex - this is exactly the zone that became active in women in the experiment described above - developed precisely so that the cries of the baby were completely unbearable for the mother and made it impossible for them to part. This mechanism provides constant contact with the adult, which is necessary for the growth and development of vulnerable young mammals.

In addition to attachment to loved ones, the capacity for compassion—that is, suffering with others—is at the heart of the doctor's vocation, encourages volunteers to help those in need, and explains everyone's desire for a more harmonious society. nine0003

Our brain structures have a connection that connects us to the pains and joys of other people, to the world around us. This connection is what makes us human - isolated and connected to each other. Feeling and therefore responsible.

1 T. Singer, B. Seymour. Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective But Not Sensory Components of Pain. Science, No. 303, 2004.

2 S. Langer. "Mind: an Essay on Human Feelings". John Hopkins Press, 1988.

Photo Source: Getty Images

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Photo by Massachusetts General Hospital

In the world of Dr. own. He thought that everyone saw the world the way he did, however, when he entered medical school, he found out that this was not the case. nine0084

Here is Joel Salinas, a third-year medical student, running to the hospital bathroom. It turns out until all the contents of the stomach come out of it. Washing himself, he examines his pale reflection in the mirror and hopes that he is still alive.

He does not yet know that he has mirror synesthesia. Every time he sees someone in pain or even just feeling touched, his brain reacts so that he feels the same in his body. And on that day in 2008, he saw a man die. nine0003

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"The patient went into cardiac arrest and it took me by surprise," he says of that day. the breathing tube scratches my throat."

When the patient was pronounced dead half an hour later, Salinas felt an ominous silence. nine0003

"I had a feeling of complete absence of physical sensations. It was a very haunting feeling. Like you were in a room with the air conditioner on, and it was suddenly knocked out," he recalls.

He rushed to the toilet. There he already realized that he was still alive and well. At that moment, Salinas vowed that he would no longer react so sensitively to such incidents.

Photo caption,

Salinas with his brother during a medical practice

Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which one feeling merges with another, rather than being experienced in isolation. Some people experience taste while listening to music, others see colors when they look at letters or numbers. nine0003

Salinas has known this for a long time. For example, as early as elementary school in Florida, he felt that the bell was ringing blue and yellow.

"When drawing in coloring books, I paid a lot of attention to making sure that the letter B was a certain shade of orange and the number one was yellow," says Salinas. , then how can two times two equal four?"

However, these color associations also helped him remember information, so he had no problems with spelling and vocabulary. nine0003 Image caption,

Synesthesia made it difficult for Joel to make friends. In the picture - he and his mother

Salinas tried to fit into friendly companies, but he did not succeed. Now he remembers how he asked his mother as a child why no one loves him. One of the problems was that he wanted to cuddle with everyone.

"I went into the arms with my head," he wrote in 2017 in his book.

Embrace made him feel warm and safe. And they meant for him "a cold silver-blue color", the same color with which he associated the number four. nine0003

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But when he hugged other children, they felt strange.

After several friendship rejections, Joel withdrew into himself. He watched TV for hours and enjoyed how his body "mirrored" the sensations of any movements and touches on the screen.

"When the Road Runner in the cartoon of the same name stuck out his tongue, it felt like I was sticking out my own tongue. When the Wile Coyote was run over by a truck, I felt it myself," Salinas recalls. nine0003 Photo caption,

Joel watched a lot of TV as a child

Even as a teenager, Salinas realized that thanks to his increased sensitivity, he himself became better when he helped others. He was attracted by the prospect of becoming a doctor, and he went into medicine.

Before that, he had not discussed his feelings with anyone, because he assumed that everyone felt the same way. However, during a student trip to India in 2005, he discovered that this was not the case.

When his classmate talked about people's unusual ability to see letters in color, he objected that this was the most common thing.

"He looked at me and said, 'Actually not at all,'" says Salinas.

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    "The pain of mirror sensations tormented me during my studies, when I watched people get severely injured," recalls Salinas.

    When he watched the boy on the operating table, he felt all the cuts on his own stomach, and when he saw the internal organs of the patient, he had a sensation of something burning and writhing.

    Salinas reached a breaking point when he saw a man die and vomited in a hospital toilet. He realized that he had to urgently learn to deal with his sensitivity if he wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

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    Salinas noticed that the sensitivity increased when the person he "mirrored" looked like himself. And he began his preparation for these cases.

    "I tried to concentrate on the patient's sleeve or collar. Or on the state of my own body," he says.

    He also found that his hyper-empathy helped him treat patients. If they were thirsty or in pain, he noticed it almost instantly, picking up the smallest movements of the body or muscles of the face. nine0003

    "I really care about my patients' well-being because it affects my well-being," explains Salinas. "In a hospital, a patient can be lonely or uncomfortable, and when they see someone else going through something similar, they really appreciate it." ".

    Caption before photo,

    Salinas (pictured with his parents) is a graduate of Miami Medical College

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    In 2007, when Salinas visited the leader among experts in synesthesia, the neurologist Vileyanur Ramachandran, who was supposed to examine him, research in this area was in its infancy.

    Salinas was told that his type of synesthesia was new to science. Until then, scientists had not known anyone who felt phantom touch when looking at the person being touched. nine0003

    This type of synesthesia has been called mirror synesthesia. According to a study by Michael Banissi, this phenomenon can be observed in 1.6% of the inhabitants of the planet.

    At the same time, Salinas discovered that his sister saw letters in color, and his mother and brother also observed moments of reflection of other people's tactile sensations.

    Now scientists think that we are all born with some degree of synesthesia. Research has shown that children associate different shapes with colors, although these feelings are then separated as our brains get rid of unnecessary neural connections as we grow up. This process is called synaptic pruning. nine0003

    "One hypothesis is that people with synesthesia break down pruning, leaving them with extra neural connections," explains Salinas.

    He is now a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Now it is easier for him to talk about his peculiarity, knowing that many scientists have already become interested in this phenomenon.

    "I used to be afraid that someone would think I was strange or even a liar. Now I can tell my experience with confidence," says Salinas. nine0003

    He agreed to an interview with artist Daria Martin, who was then working on an installation film about mirror synesthesia for London's Wellcome Collection.

    "We believe that humans have five senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching. But there are other scientifically proven senses, such as feeling pain or feeling temperature," explains Martin. "Synesthesia can be at the intersection of any of these feelings."

    image copyrightDaria Martin courtesy of Maureen Paley

    Photo caption,

    A film by Daria Martin at the Wellcome Collection

    Martin has made two films about how people with mirror synesthesia see the world.

    Learn more