Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: an event-related brain potential study

Neuroimage. 2010 May 1;50(4):1676-82. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.01.025. Epub 2010 Jan 18.


Watching or imagining other people experiencing pain activates the central nervous system's pain matrix in the observer. Without emotion regulation skills, repeated exposure to the suffering of others in healthcare professionals may be associated with the adverse consequences of personal distress, burnout and compassion fatigue, which are detrimental to their wellbeing. Here, we recorded event-related potentials (ERP) from physicians and matched controls as they were presented with visual stimuli depicting body parts pricked by a needle (pain) or touched by a Q-tip (no-pain). The results showed early N110 differentiation between pain and no-pain over the frontal area as well as late P3 over the centro-parietal regions were observed in the control participants. In contrast, no such early and late ERP responses were detected in the physicians. Our results indicate that emotion regulation in physicians has very early effects, inhibiting the bottom-up processing of the perception of pain in others. It is suggested that physicians' down-regulation of the pain response dampens their negative arousal in response to the pain of others and thus may have many beneficial consequences including freeing up cognitive resources necessary for being of assistance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Time Factors
  • Visual Perception / physiology