empathy more than a feeling

When your girlfriend tells you she feels your pain, she’s not lying. British researchers from University College London have found that feeling empathy activates regions of the brain involved with processing pain. Tania Singer and her colleagues used 16 heterosexual couples for their study, published in the Feb. 20 Science. They scanned the brains of the women as they were given an electrical shock, and then again as the women watched their loved ones undergo the same painful jolt. Pain has sensory and emotional components, and when the women were physically hurt, the researchers found that areas of the brain involved with processing both components were active. But even when the women were merely spectators, the parts of their brains that processed the emotion of pain were just as active as when they were shocked themselves. “The results suggest that we use emotional representations reflecting our own subjective feeling states to understand the feelings of others,” Singer stated in a press release. “Our human capacity to `tune in’ to others when exposed to their feelings may explain why we do not always behave selfishly in human interactions but instead engage in altruistic, helping behavior.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 3/02/2004.
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