Evolution of Empathy: Scientists Study Physical and Emotional Pain Responses

When someone is in physical pain, it is common for others to respond to that pain, both physically and emotionally. They may act in ways that will help alleviate the physical pain, and they may actually feel emotional symptoms of the other person’s pain. Likewise, when emotional pain is witnessed, such as grieving, witnesses may also feel a sense of sadness or loss.

These two different kinds of pain and how they are processed were the focus of a recent study led by Emile Bruneau of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bruneau wanted to see what regions of the brain were involved in processing empathetic responses to others’ physical and emotional pain, and whether these processes were distinct or shared.

Bruneau recruited 41 participants and exposed them to 96 verbal vignettes of various physical and emotional pain experiences. The participants were evaluated using brain imaging methods as they underwent the vignette exposure. Bruneau wanted to find out how realistic and vivid the stories seemed to the participants, as well as how they processed their response to the protagonists’ pain. She found that although there was a clear shared pain region of the brain, different areas were involved in processing the physical pain and the emotional pain.

In particular, Bruneau found that the neural regions that were activated during the physical pain prompts were different than those activated during the emotional pain prompts. She believes evolution may have something to do with this, and more specifically, why the response to physical pain seemed to occur first.

Bruneau theorizes that evolution is responsible for the immediate response to physical pain. In other words, when people are in physical pain, they are motivated to remove whatever is causing the physical pain first, before they address any emotional pain issues. Bruneau believes her research provides evidence for two unique and independent processes involved in human empathy. She added, “Determining which part of the activity observed here, or which additional downstream responses, represent true empathic concern will be a focus of future research.”

Bruneau, E., Dufour, N., Saxe, R. (2013). How we know it hurts: Item analysis of written narratives reveals distinct neural responses to others’ physical pain and emotional suffering. PLoS ONE 8(4): e63085. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063085

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  • jeremy

    May 14th, 2013 at 10:59 PM

    its so true that physical pain empathy comes more easily.the imagery is present too.and that aspect plays a big part in triggering the pain empathy.not htat emotional pain is any less painful but because the imagery is absent another [person will not feel empathy as easily.

  • Sandra

    May 15th, 2013 at 3:49 AM

    I don’t know about everyone else, but I have a much easier time recognizing physical pain than I do hurt emotions, so of course that is the one thing that I will always address first. It’s like for me the physical pain comes firts and then the emotional pain and hurt sets in secondary to that.

  • bennett

    May 16th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    Kind of like the body’s safety mechanism. Take care of what could really harm you physically and then you can take care of the other. Survival mode

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