Subliminal presentation of other faces (but not own face) primes behavioral and evoked cortical processing of empathy for pain

Brain Res. 2011 Jun 29:1398:72-85. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.05.014. Epub 2011 May 14.


Current research on empathy for pain emphasizes the overlap in the neural response between the first-hand experience of pain and its perception in others. However, recent studies suggest that the perception of the pain of others may reflect the processing of a threat or negative arousal rather than an automatic pro-social response. It can thus be suggested that pain processing of other-related, but not self-related, information could imply danger rather than empathy, due to the possible threat represented in the expressions of others (especially if associated with pain stimuli). To test this hypothesis, two experiments considering subliminal stimuli were designed. In Experiment 1, neutral and semantic pain expressions previously primed with own or other faces were presented to participants. When other-face priming was used, only the detection of semantic pain expressions was facilitated. In Experiment 2, pictures with pain and neutral scenarios previously used in ERP and fMRI research were used in a categorization task. Those pictures were primed with own or other faces following the same procedure as in Experiment 1 while ERPs were recorded. Early (N1) and late (P3) cortical responses between pain and no-pain were modulated only in the other-face priming condition. These results support the threat value of pain hypothesis and suggest the necessity for the inclusion of own- versus other-related information in future empathy for pain research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Subliminal Stimulation*
  • Young Adult