Own sense of pain is important for empathy
Empathy is of the utmost importance for everyday social interaction. Everyone has probably seen one unknown person injure himself or suffer pain. It is often the case that this pain is felt at first. It is actually quite difficult to suppress or ignore this feeling. But how important is it that someone can feel pain themselves? Do you have to feel pain yourself to empathize with the pain of others?
Neuroscientific models suggest that it is necessary to feel pain yourself in order to empathize with other people. It is believed that certain regions of the brain are activated in pain empathy. These are sometimes also involved in processing your own pain. One could conclude from this that pain empathy and own pain use similar neuronal functions.Claus Lamm and his team used this knowledge about pain empathy in a study funded by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund. The University of Vienna conducted an investigation to find an explanation of the neurobiological mechanisms of empathy. For this purpose, over 100 subjects were tested. Through an experimental manipulation of pain felt by oneself, it was tested in which form this also influences empathy for pain. For this purpose, a placebo analgesia was carried out.
Pain relievers but also placebo reduce empathy
In the placebo analgesia group, test subjects reported their reduced subjective pain perception. This was associated with reduced brain activity in the anterior insular cortex and the middle cingulate cortex, explained psychologist Claus Lamm in the journal "PNAS" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). These areas in the brain are known as parts of the neural empathy network, the expert said. At the same time, they also form central components of the body's own opiate system, i.e. the system that is involved in dampening pain felt by the patient, the doctor explained.
The University of Vienna tested the involvement of the opiate system in the observed placebo empathy effect in a follow-up experiment. It was hoped that this would allow clearer conclusions to be drawn about the neurotransmitter systems involved, according to the researchers. Lahm and his team blocked the opiate receptors with the help of a drug. This triggered a blockade of the placebo empathy effect. This made possible participation of the opiate system in placebo empathy more likely. Study leader Lamm said that this represents a significant step towards a more mechanistic understanding of empathy.
Less sensitivity to pain also changes the compassion for pain
Feeling less pain also means less understanding of other people's pain, and patients who took pain medication or dummy medication felt less pain than the comparison group. It was also observed that the sympathy for the pain of the other test subjects was greatly reduced. The participants themselves became less sensitive to pain and therefore considered pain stimuli less stressful for other people.
The team is currently working on another study to investigate the direct effects of opiate administration on empathy. The results make it clear that empathy is very much based on personal experience, Lamm and colleagues. This is one of the reasons why other people's feelings and pain can affect us so much, Lamm explained. This also provides an explanation of why empathy can sometimes go in the wrong direction: We judge other people primarily from our own perspective. (as)