Looking at photos of starving refugees or earthquake victims can trigger a visceral sense of empathy. But how, exactly, do we feel others’ agony as our own? A new study suggests that seeing others in pain engages some of the same neural pathways as when we ourselves are in pain. Moreover, both pain and empathy can be reduced by a placebo effect that acts on the same pathways as opioid painkillers, the researchers found.
“This study provides one of the most direct demonstrations to date that first-hand pain and pain empathy are functionally related,” says neurobiologist Bernadette Fitzgibbon of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who was not involved in the new research. “It’s very exciting.”