Why Empathy Triggers Physical Pain

Screen shot 2014-03-11 at 11.28.22 AMEvidence from empirical research continues to demonstrate that we are one organism, interconnected with our environment. Our consciousness and physical structure are one entity, and our whole being is, in turn, interwoven with our “external” experiences. Much research using MRIs has already shown a core aspect of this — that our brains and consciousness react to the emotional experiences of others: the “mirror neurons” that activate when we experience another’s emotional state. This latest study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience provides another dimension of this link. In essence, it found that social pain we experience in others (we can call that empathy or compassion) and in ourselves triggers physical pain.

It’s good to see Western science demonstrate and confirm the perspective that’s been part of Eastern and mystical traditions. Researchers in the current study found that when a person experiences social pain in another, a region of the brain associated with physical pain is aroused. In two separate experiments, researchers found that that both situations activated that brain region that processes physical pain. As in other studies, brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The research was summarized in Medical News Today. It joins with findings from a previous study that when a spouse experiences chronic pain, the other spouse may be affected by lack of sleep and may develop health problems.