Influence of cognitive stance and physical perspective on subjective and autonomic reactivity to observed pain and pleasure: An immersive virtual reality study

Conscious Cogn. 2019 Jan;67:86-97. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2018.11.010. Epub 2018 Dec 13.


Observing others' pain may induce a reaction called personal distress that may be influenced by top-down (imagine self or other in pain, i.e., self- vs other-oriented stance) and bottom-up (physical perspective of those who suffer, i.e., first vs third person perspective- 1PP vs 3PP) processes. The different contributions of these processes have not been teased apart. By capitalizing on the power of Immersive Virtual Reality, we explored how behavioural (subjective ratings) and physiological reactivity (skin conductance reactivity, SCR) to pain and pleasure delivered to an avatar was influenced by Cognitive stance and Physical perspective. Taking an Other-Oriented stance leads to attributing higher congruent valence (i.e. pain rated as unpleasant and pleasure as pleasant) and intensity to the stimuli and induces reduced SCR. Ownership over the virtual limb was maximal in 1PP where physiological reactivity to the stimuli was comparable. Our results highlight different components underpinning reactivity to pain and pleasure.

Keywords: Cognitive and physical perspective-taking; Empathy; Feeling of Ownership; Immersive Virtual Reality; Pleasant touch; Vicarious Pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pleasure / physiology*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*
  • Touch Perception / physiology*
  • Virtual Reality*
  • Young Adult