Love hurts: an fMRI study

Neuroimage. 2010 Jun;51(2):923-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.02.047. Epub 2010 Feb 24.


Being in a close relationship is essential to human existence. Such closeness can be described as including other in the self and be underpinned on social attachment system, which evolved from a redirection of nociceptive mechanisms. To what extent does imagining a loved-one differs from imagining an unfamiliar individual being in painful situations? In this functional MRI study, participants were exposed to animated stimuli depicting hands or feet in painful and non-painful situations, and instructed to imagine these scenarios from three different perspectives: self, loved-one and stranger after being primed with their respective photographs. In line with previous studies, the three perspectives were associated with activation of the neural network involved in pain processing. Specifically, adopting the perspective of a loved-one increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, whereas imagining a stranger induced a signal increase in the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) and superior frontal gyrus. The closer the participants' relationships were with their partner, the greater the deactivation in the right TPJ. A negative effective connectivity between the right TPJ and the insula, and a positive one with the superior frontal gyrus were found when participants imagined the perspective of a stranger. These results demonstrate that intimacy affects the bottom-up information processing involved in empathy, as indicated by greater overlap between neural representations of the self and the other.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Love*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male