Observing dyspnoea in others elicits dyspnoea, negative affect and brain responses

Eur Respir J. 2018 Apr 4;51(4):1702682. doi: 10.1183/13993003.02682-2017. Print 2018 Apr.


Dyspnoea is usually caused by diagnosable cardiorespiratory mechanisms. However, frequently dyspnoea relates only weakly or not at all to cardiorespiratory functioning, suggesting that additional neuropsychosocial processes contribute to its experience. We tested whether the mere observation of dyspnoea in others constitutes such a process and would elicit dyspnoea, negative affect and increased brain responses in the observer.In three studies, series of pictures and videos were presented, which either depicted persons suffering from dyspnoea or nondyspnoeic control stimuli. Self-reports of dyspnoea and affective state were obtained in all studies. Additionally, respiratory variables and brain responses during picture viewing (late positive potentials in electroencephalograms) were measured in one study.In all studies, dyspnoea-related pictures and videos elicited mild-to-moderate dyspnoea and increased negative affect compared to control stimuli. This was paralleled by increased late positive potentials for dyspnoea-related pictures while respiratory variables did not change. Moreover, increased dyspnoea correlated modestly with higher levels of empathy in observers.The present results demonstrate that observing dyspnoea in others elicits mild-to-moderate dyspnoea, negative affect, and increased brain responses in the absence of respiratory changes. This vicarious dyspnoea has clinical relevance, as it might increase suffering in the family and medical caregivers of dyspnoeic patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Dyspnea / physiopathology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Self Report
  • Virtual Reality
  • Young Adult