UCL News


I feel your pain

16 April 2004

A UCL team has discovered the neuroscience underlying what happens in our brains when we empathise with someone experiencing pain.

Dr Tania Singer Researchers from UCL's Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience found that knowing our partner is in pain automatically triggers affective, but not sensory, pain processing regions of the brain.

16 couples took part in the study, under the assumption that couples are likely to feel empathy for one another. Brain activity of the female partner was monitored while painful stimulation was applied to either her or her male partner's right hand.

It was found that only certain parts of the female's neural 'pain matrix' was activated when she empathised with the pain of her loved one. Team member Dr Tania Singer said: "Some brain regions code for the location and objective intensity of the pain, while others process the subjective emotional responses to the pain, that is, how unpleasant the pain subjectively feels."

The researchers concluded that empathy activates the same regions found to be also involved in the anticipation of pain. There was heightened arousal and emotion, but the participants did not feel the actual physical pain in their hand.

Dr Singer added: "The significance of this research is that, for the first time, brain imagers were able to study empathic processes 'in vivo' in the usually unnatural scanning environment and show that parts of the pain-matrix coding for the affective components of our pain experience are automatically triggered by the mere perception of a symbol indicating that your loved one is in pain."

She continued: "Our human capacity to 'tune in' to others when exposed to their feelings may explain why we do not always behave selfishly in human interactions but instead engage in altruistic, helping behaviour."

The research has been published in the 20 February 2004 edition of Science magazine.

To find out more about the centre or read the paper, use the link below.

UCL's Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience
Science magazine