Physical pains triggered by others’ emotions?
Physical pain can play a key role in our lives. It serves as a signal that, among other things, alerts us to danger and helps us survive. A new study expands on this and reveals that even if physical pain is not experienced firsthand, by witnessing social pain we can still feel hurt or pain.
The study, published in late February in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, reveals that social pain, (events that threaten social bonds, like bullying or rejection), triggers brain circuits related to physical pain, whether we experience the pain personally or we see it happening to someone else.
In addition to helping guide our behavior for survival, researchers found that pain also helps us protect our social bonds. The nervous system has evolved to pick up on the pain of others, which in turn produces appropriate behavioral responses.
As part of the study, 23 female participants took part in experiments that involved a physical pain task and a social pain task where the brain and behavioral responses were observed. During the experiments, there were times when the participant was on the receiving end of a painful experience and then times where she would watch another during a painful experience.
Researchers found that both experiences as the subject and the observer during physical and social pain tasks activated a part of the brain called the posterior insular cortex. This area of the brain is connected to the sensory processing of physical pain.
This response, researchers said, was because as humans we tend to “prioritize escape, recovery and healing,” which explains why we experience social pain and can empathize when others go through it as well.
“Our findings lend support to the theoretical model of empathy that explains involvement in other people’s emotions based on the representation of our own emotional experience in similar situations,” said study co-author Giorgia Silani, a cognitive neuroscience researcher the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy.
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