Empathy is the ability to internally experience an interpretation of another person’s state of mind. There are several types of empathy, each of which describes a specific way in which humans automatically mimic the perspective of others. Emotional empathy, for example, is at work when people “feel bad for” someone because they look sad, or why a good mood can seem to be contagious. While the emotional aspect often gets the most attention, physical empathy also exists. One of the most obvious forms of physical empathy is empathic pain, which many may know as “sympathy pain”.
The experience of empathic pain is often described as being comparable to its physical counterpart (nociceptive pain), and so researchers have long suspected a functional connection between the two phenomena. Evidence for the existence of such an association has accumulated over time, mainly through neuroscientific imaging studies but its defining characteristics have only recently started to come to light. For instance, a piece of research with important implications about the nature of the link between physical and emphatic pain has recently caught the public’s attention.
Painkillers May Dull Empathic Pain
Acetaminophen (paracetamol) is one of the most popular over-the-counter painkillers in the world, which speaks volumes for its effectiveness. Now it appears that the drug has a similar influence on empathic experiences. A trio of Ohio State researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, 40 subjects were treated with a dosage of acetaminophen, while a control group of equal size instead received a placebo.
After one hour, all participants were asked to rate the amount of pain experienced by characters in several written scenarios. This task was specifically designed to evaluate empathic pain. Assessments of pain were found to be significantly less severe in the group who received the painkiller. As expected, they also reported a reduction in their own sense of pain, and an interaction analysis revealed that the empathy response was indeed mediated by the physical.
The second experiment included 114 total subjects, and once again acetaminophen and placebo were evenly distributed among them. They were then blasted with painful bursts of white noise and instructed to rate the level of discomfort. In addition, participants were asked to imagine how painful the blasts would be for another person. Acetaminophen usage was linked to lower ratings for both self-pain and when estimating the pain of others. These findings suggest that nociceptive pain and empathic pain share underlying brain functions that are impacted by taking the drug.
A Psychological Framework
The journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences recently published a thorough review of research related to the connection between empathic and nociceptive pain. In this article, the authors discuss existing evidence and propose a constructivist framework that addresses significant gaps in the knowledge base.
For example, the anterior insulate (AI) and parts of the cingulate cortex (CC) are areas of the brain that become active during both types of pain, but they also activate during other experiences. This makes it difficult to identify the role of each area in the production of the pain sensation. However, if pain is considered to be comprised of distinct psychological components (intensity, type, duration, location) rather than a single entity, then it becomes apparent that individual brain areas may contribute specific characteristics to the phenomenon.
The multidimensional approach to pain definition forms the basis for the constructivist model proposed in this study, and shifts the focus from the activity within distinct brain areas to the identification of complex patterns of activation across those locations. It also suggests that emphatic and physical pain processing are different in overall quality, but share several characteristic components. This interpretation is consistent with the subjective experiences of empathic and nociceptive pain being similar but not identical. The processes may be different as a whole, but parts of the pattern may still overlap where characteristics are shared.
Implications for the Future
As a part of the acetaminophen study, participants also rated the pain felt by others when they are excluded by a group, which is a form of emotional empathy rather than physical. Scores were once again lower in the treatment group when compared to those who were given placebo. It ten appears that acetaminophen usage can lead to less emotional emphatic pain, along with the physical. Using the constructivist framework proposed by Zaki and colleagues, it could be suggested that this cross-activation is due to a partial overlap of the neurological processes underlying each form of pain experience.
A large amount of research will be required to better understand the complicated relationship between pain and empathy, but the endeavor is certainly warranted. Empathy is an innate quality that guides survival and promotes compassion throughout the species. The inhibition of any emphatic process by a common drug like acetaminophen is an alarming finding, but an impact on emotional responses is both unexpected and unnerving. Such an effect would, however, help to explain the common complaint that people in capitalistic societies have become less concerned with the well-being of others over time.
Oakville Wellness Team
Mischkowski, D., Crocker, J., & Way, B. M. (2016). From painkiller to empathy killer: Acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. Social Cognitive and Affective, Neuroscience, nsw057 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsw057
Zaki, J., Wager, T. D., Singer, T., Keysers, C., & Gazzola, V. (2016). The anatomy of suffering: Understanding the relationship between nociceptive and empathic pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(4), 249-259. Retrieved from http://wagerlab.colorado.edu/files/papers/anatomy.pdf