Study: Emotional mimicry signals pain empathy as evidenced by facial electromyography

Facial mimicry has been suggested to be a behavioral index for emotional empathy.

The present study is the first to investigate the link between facial muscle activity and empathy for pain by facial electromyographic (EMG) recording while observers watched videos depicting real-life painful events.

Three types of visual stimulus were used: an intact painful scene and arm-only (needle injection) and face only (painful expression) scenes. Enhanced EMG activity of the corrugator supercilii (CS) and zygomaticus major (ZM) muscles was found when observers viewed others in pain, supporting a unique pain expression that is distinct from the expression of basic emotions.

In the intact video stimulus condition, CS activity was correlated positively with the empathic concern score and ZM activity, suggesting facial mimicry mediated empathy for pain. Cluster analysis of facial EMG responses revealed markedly different patterns among stimulus types, including response category, ratio, and temporal dynamics, indicating greater ecological validity of the intact scene in eliciting pain empathy as compared with partial scenes.

This study is the first to quantitatively describe pain empathy in terms of facial EMG data. It may provide important evidence for facial mimicry as a behavioral indicator of pain empathy.