Empathy Reduces the Effects of Pain

Empathy can be an effective tool for reducing pain, according to results from a placebo analgesia study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Empathy can be an effective tool for reducing pain, according to results from a placebo analgesia study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Researchers from the University of Vienna recruited more than 100 participants to demonstrate the effects of placebo analgesia in reducing the first hand experience of pain. The patients underwent functional MRI assessments, from which the researchers were able to extract information related to their pain experiences. The researchers explained that while prior research has shown that empathy can activate brain regions which overlap with the regions associated with experiencing pain, it is still unknown whether or not shared activations of these regions could indicate reduced first hand pain experiences.

The researchers were able to determine that participants who experienced placebo analgesia reported decreased empathy for pain. These results were linked to reduced engagement of the brain region associated with shared activations of both pain and empathy.

“Only this trick enabled us to conclude with higher certainty that empathy relies on stimulation,” study author Claus Lamm from the Department of Basic Psychology Research and Research Methods, said in a press release. “These brain regions are well known major hubs in the neuronal empathy network. In addition, they are central parts of the endogenous opioid system, which is involved in pain regulation.”

In the second part of their study, 50 participants were included in an experiment with psychopharmacological manipulation. The researchers aimed to determine whether the effects of empathy on pain experience could be blocked using an opioid antagonist (naltrexone). The opioid antagonist was successful in blocking placebo analgesia. The researchers found that the blockage resulted in corresponding “normalization” of empathy for pain, they wrote.

“This result strongly suggests an involvement of the opioid system in placebo empathy, which is an important step to a more mechanistic understanding of empathy,” Lamm continued.

The researchers’ next step is to test whether the observed effects in the opioid system can directly impact the empathic process or if they are carry over effects of the manipulation of self-experienced pain.

“The present results show that empathy is strongly and directly grounded in our own experiences — even in their bodily and neural underpinnings,” Lamm concluded. “This might be one reason why feelings of others can affect us so immediately – as we literally feel these feelings as if we were to experience them ourselves, at least partially. On the other hand, these findings also explain why empathy can go wrong – as we judge the feelings of others based on our own perspective.”