Hearing others' pain: neural activity related to empathy



Abstract The human voice is one of the principal
conveyers of social and affective communication. Recent
neuroimaging studies have suggested that observing pain
in others activates neural representations similar to those
from the first-hand experience of pain; however, studies
on pain expressions in the auditory channel are lacking.
We conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging
study to examine brain responses to emotional exclama-
tions of others’ pain. The control condition comprised
positive (e.g.,laughing) or negative (e.g., snoring)
stimuli of the human voice that were not associated with
pain and suffering. Compared to these control stimuli,
pain-related exclamations elicited increased activation in
the superior and middle temporal gyri,left insula,
secondary somatosensory cortices,thalamus, and right
cerebellum, as well as deactivation in the anterior
cingulate cortex. The left anterior insular and thalamic
activations correlated significantly with the Empathic
Concern subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index.
Thus,the brain regions involved in hearing others’ pain
are similar to those activated in the empathic processing
of visual stimuli. Additionally,the findings emphasise
the modulating role of interindividual differences in
affective empathy.

Empathy is a complex and multidimensional construct that
entails not only sharing the emotional experience of another
person but also a number of cognitive functions, such as the
capacity to understand the other’s feelings (Davis,1996;
Decety & Jackson, 2004; Preston & de Waal, 2002). The
ability to empathize with others who suffer from either
psychological or physical pain is critical for maintaining
relationships and engaging in prosocial behaviour.
In recent years,the idea that perception-action links in
the brain enable us to understand others, a claim that was
originally established in the sensorimotor domain, has been
expanded to feelings and sensations (Decety & Lamm,
2006; De Vignemont & Singer, 2006; Gallese, 2003;
Preston & de Waal, 2002).

According to the perception-
action model of Preston and de Waal, perception and action
are represented in shared brain networks, and thus the
observation of another person’s emotional state automati-
cally activates the observer’s representations of that state.
These shared neural circuits between self and other prompt
the observer to resonate with me emotional state of others
(Adolphs, 2002; Preston & de Waal, 2002).