The shared-representation model of empathy suggests that vicarious pain processes rely partly on the activation of brain systems underlying self-pain in the observer. Here, we tested the hypothesis that self-pain may be facilitated by the vicarious priming of neural systems underlying pain perception. Pictures illustrating painful agents applied to the hand or the foot (sensory information), or painful facial expressions (emotional information) were shown to 43 participants to test the effects of vicarious pain on the nociceptive flexion reflex (NFR) of the lower limb and pain intensity and unpleasantness produced by transcutaneous electrical stimulation applied over the sural nerve. Results confirmed the expected priming effects of vicarious pain on spinal and perceptual processes. However, for comparable pain intensity and arousal evoked by the pain pictures, the facilitation of the NFR and the self-pain unpleasantness measurements was more robust in response to pictures depicting pain sensory compared to emotional information. Furthermore, the facilitation of the NFR by pain pictures was positively correlated with the empathy trait of the observer. In contrast, the change in perceived shock-pain intensity was negatively correlated with empathic traits. This dissociation implies that low-level vicarious priming processes underlying pain facilitation may be downregulated at higher pain-processing stages in individuals reporting higher levels of empathy. We speculate that this process contributes to reducing self-other assimilation and is necessary to adopt higher-order empathic responses and altruistic behaviors.
Copyright © 2011 International Association for the Study of Pain. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.