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What’s different about the brains of the minority of us who feel other people’s physical pain?

20 November 2017

If a friend sees you suffering and tells you “I feel your pain”, it may be more than an expression of empathy.

For about a quarter of people, it could be literally true. A recent study, led by Thomas Grice-Jackson at the University of Sussex, found that 27 per cent of participants experienced so-called “mirror pain” – watching someone falling off a bicycle or receiving an injection, for instance, caused them to experience physical pain of their own.

Now in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the same team of researchers has explored the neurological underpinnings of mirror pain. When some people have this experience, they don’t just show more activity in the so-called “pain matrix” (the network of brain regions linked to the experience of pain), they also show unusual patterns of neural activity that suggest they struggle to distinguish other people’s experience from their own.

The researchers studied 44 participants, 18 men and 26 women, who had completed a survey that involved watching 16 movies depicting people experiencing injections and sports injuries, and reporting whether they experienced any pain themselves, and if so, what it was like.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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