The Link Between Empathy and Pain

Pat Anson, Editor

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word empathy as “understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Or as former President Bill Clinton famously said, “I feel your pain.”

But new research suggests empathy may be a lot more complicated than we think – at least when it comes to feeling the pain of others.

A team of European researchers has found evidence that empathy may be strongly influenced by neurotransmitters in the brain -- and is not just a form of emotional or social bonding.

Their findings suggest that empathy is dependent – not on feeling the pain of others --- but on experiencing pain yourself.

“Empathy is of major importance for everyday social interaction. Recent neuroscientific models suggest that pain empathy relies on the activation of brain areas that are also engaged during the first-hand experience of pain,” wrote psychologist Clauss Lamm of the University of Vienna, lead author of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lamm and his colleagues recruited 100 participants for an experimental trick with a placebo. They divided the volunteers into two groups and gave one group a pill they thought was a painkiller but was actually a placebo. The second group received no pill at all.

Both groups were given a small electric shock and asked to rate the degree of pain they felt -- and the degree of pain they saw in others who were also shocked.

The group that received the placebo not only reported less pain than the control group, but they also felt there was less pain experienced by others. That placebo-empathy effect was confirmed by MRI’s – which found there was less activity in brain areas of the placebo group that felt less pain and empathy for others.

Researchers tested the placebo-empathy effect in a second study in which they used the drug naltrexone to block opioid receptors in some of the volunteers. Those given naltrexone reported feeling more pain when shocked and felt that others felt more pain as well.

"This result strongly suggests an involvement of the opioid system in placebo-empathy, which is an important step to a more mechanistic understanding of empathy,” said Lamm.

"The present results show that empathy is strongly and directly grounded in our own experiences – even in their bodily and neural underpinnings. This might be one reason why feelings of others can affect us so immediately – as we literally feel these feelings as if we were to experience them ourselves, at least partially. On the other hand, these findings also explain why empathy can go wrong – as we judge the feelings of others based on our own perspective,” explains Lamm.

Lamm and his colleagues are now working on a follow-up study in which they are investigating the effects of opioids on empathy.