In 1985, Monday Night Football fans looked on as Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was sacked. The collision was so forceful that it snapped Theismann's leg, breaking like, as one fan put it, a "stale chopstick." Most audience members likely empathized with Theismann's pain, including people afflicted with a rare disorder that prevents them from feeling pain themselves, a new study suggests.
Instead of using past experiences of feeling pain to commiserate, such people likely rely on the ability to imagine the pain of others, suggests the brain-imaging study, published online January 28 in Neuron.
"This fascinating and well-conducted study" gives new insights into the relationship between pain and empathy, comments Marco Loggia of the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Charlestown, Mass.
The study suggests that multiple brain regions, including regions involved in emotions, can be recruited to feel empathy for others' pain. In future studies, Loggia says, it would be interesting to examine other cases when people are exposed to someone else's feelings without ever having felt such feelings firsthand. "How can humans empathize with a dog that hurt its tail? How can a man understand menstrual pain?" Loggia asks. The answers, he proposes, may lie in the same regions of the brain that allow pain-insensitive people to empathize with others' pain.
Study coauthor Nicolas Danziger wanted to know whether a person could empathize with an unfamiliar emotional state. Understanding other people's emotional states, such as pain, is thought to be based on a system in the brain called the mirror system. When someone sees a quarterback break a leg, specific groups of brain cells in the spectator's brain activate. These nerve cells are the same ones that would activate if the spectator broke his own leg.
Called mirror neurons, these cells are thought to prompt a kind of knee-jerk reaction in the brain in response to seeing others' pain, a phenomenon researchers call automatic resonance. Put simply, these mirror brain cells don't distinguish between monkey see and monkey do.