Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Placebo analgesia reduces empathy for pain.

Fascinating observations from Rütgen et al.. They show that experimental modulation of a first-hand emotion experience also modulates empathy for that emotion experience. This confirms that overlapping neural circuitry for a representation of another's emotion is specifically grounded in neural mechanisms that are also subserving the corresponding first-hand emotion experience, as opposed to unspecific or domain-general neural processes associated with emotion experiences:
Previous research in social neuroscience has consistently shown that empathy for pain recruits brain areas that are also activated during the first-hand experience of pain. This has been interpreted as evidence that empathy relies upon neural processes similar to those underpinning the first-hand experience of emotions. However, whether such overlapping neural activations imply that equivalent neural functions are engaged by empathy and direct emotion experiences remains to be demonstrated. We induced placebo analgesia, a phenomenon specifically modulating the first-hand experience of pain, to test whether this also reduces empathy for pain. Subjective and neural measures of pain and empathy for pain were collected using self-report and event-related potentials (ERPs) while participants underwent painful electrical stimulation or witnessed that another person was undergoing such stimulation. Self-report showed decreased empathy during placebo analgesia, and this was mirrored by reduced amplitudes of the pain-related P2, an ERP component indexing neural computations related to the affective-motivational component of pain. Moreover, these effects were specific for pain, as self-report and ERP measures of control conditions unrelated to pain were not affected by placebo analgesia. Together, the present results suggest that empathy seems to rely on neural processes that are (partially) functionally equivalent to those engaged by first-hand emotion experiences. Moreover, they imply that analgesics may have the unwanted side effect of reducing empathic resonance and concern for others.

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