Do we feel pain when someone else is punched?

25 Mar 2016

Human brains are hardwired to learn from physically painful experiences, even when it’s someone else feeling the pain.

Have you ever seen someone get punched flush in the nose and felt an element of what they’re going through in that precise moment?

Flashing back to times in the past when you got a bang – knowing the feeling moments before, during and then even after the full suite of hurt hits your body – your empathy hits heights you probably think are weird.

But now some scientists have gone through the data, looked at our brains and found that empathetic pain is the same as physical pain with regards key neurological responses. This is hugely helpful for humans for very logical reasons: to learn from others’ mistakes.

Two separate papers were simultaneously published on the neurological processes the human brain goes through during painful experiences, with the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the University of Geneva’s combined work complementary.

During painful experiences the anterior insula region and the cingulate cortex process both general components and specific pain information – whether the pain is direct or empathic.

Both of these processes happen in parallel, but the specific pain response is activated in a different way. The fact that the brain handles both tasks at the same time means we can feel both our own sensory and emotional processes, as well as those ‘absorbed’ emphatically.

“The fact that our brain processes pain and other unpleasant events simultaneously for the most part, no matter if they are experienced by us or someone else, is very important for social interactions,” said Anita Tusche, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute and one of the authors of one of the studies.

“Because it helps to us understand what others are experiencing.”

Fight image via Sportpoint/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic