Empathy is of major importance for everyday social interaction. Recent neuroscientific models suggest that pain empathy relies on the activation of brain areas that are also engaged during the first-hand experience of pain. These models rely on rather unspecific and correlational evidence.
Scientists in the journal PNAS show that inducing pain analgesia also reduces pain empathy, and that this is associated with decreased activation of empathy-related brain areas.
Authors then document that blocking placebo analgesia via an opioid antagonist also blocks placebo analgesia effects on pain empathy. This finding suggests that pain empathy is grounded in neural responses and neurotransmitter activity related to first-hand pain.
The team is thus currently working on a follow-up study which will investigate direct effects of opioid administration on empathy.
"The present results show that empathy is strongly and directly grounded in our own experiences - even in their bodily and neural underpinnings. This might be one reason why feelings of others can affect us so immediately - as we literally feel these feelings as if we were to experience them ourselves, at least partially. On the other hand, these findings also explain why empathy can go wrong - as we judge the feelings of others based on our own perspective", explains the author.