Sunday, 1 July 2012

Phillip Jackson: The Brain Response to the Pain of Others: Fleeing Versus Caring


Abstract: The subjective nature of pain makes its communication from one person who is suffering to another who is observing quite a challenge. Accurate perception of others' pain relies on different behavioral and neurophysiological mechanisms, which can vary depending on individual, relational and contextual factors. This talk will discuss evidence showing how the perception of pain in other individuals is related to patterns of brain response similar to thosefound when people are in pain. While this 'shared representation' of pain, which can automatically trigger an aversive response in the observer leading to avoidance, has likely played a key role in the species' survival, we posit that other regulatory mechanisms can override this response to allow for concern and prosocial behaviour to emerge towards the person in pain. This conscious act of empathy has no doubt contributed to our social nature.


Decety, J. & Jackson, P.L. (2006). A social neuroscience perspective on empathy. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 15, 54-58http://www.sociology.uiowa.edu/nsfworkshop/JournalArticleResources/Decety_Jackson_SocialNeuroscienceEmpathy_2006.pdf
Voisin, J.I.A., Mercier, C., Canizales, D.L., Marcoux, L.-A. & Jackson, P.L. (2011). I am touched by your pain: Limb-specific modulation of the cortical response to a tactile stimulation during pain observation. The Journal of Pain, 12(11), 1182-1189. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21911315  
Coll, M.P., Gregoire, M., Latimer, M., Eugene, F., & Jackson, P.L. (2011). Perception of pain in others: implication for caregivers. Pain Management, 1(3), 257-265.http://www.futuremedicine.com/doi/abs/10.2217/pmt.11.21

 Commentary invited

10 comments:

  1. If I remember correctly from Dr. Jackson's talk, pain-insensitive people show activation of some brain areas (indicated by a BOLD signal?) in response to watching another person undergo painful stimuli. Were these areas the same as those activated in pain-sensitive normals in same situations, such as anterior cingulate and insular cortices?

    If this was so, I wonder what the explanation would be, because I would think that the phenomenology of imagining pain in other people depends to some extent on our own experience of pain. So, if the pain-insensitive subjects show the same areas/strength of activation, it would follow that knowing what pain feels to oneself has not much to do with imagining what pain must feel like to other people, which doesn't make sense to me intuitively.

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  2. Hi,
    The brain imaging study you are referring to is Danziger et al, Neuron, 2009 (see also Danziger et al., Brain 2006 for a prior behavioral study). This experiment indeed suggests that people with congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) show a similar pattern of brain activation (including changes in anterior mid-cingulate and opercular-insula cortices) than healthy controls. One further finding from this paper is that CIP patients showed a positive correlation between trait empathy (measured with self-report questionnaires) and ventromedial prefrontal responses. A pattern not found in the controls. The authors suggest that other mechanisms such as perspective taking (as opposed to somatosenrory/affective resonance – which is likely more experience dependent) can lead to this pattern of activity during the observation of other people’s pain.
    Phil J

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  3. I am wondering if such findings can only be generalized to pain. Have you done any study involving pleasant emotion using similar stimuli (ex. hands holding a smiling baby or putting a fork in a delicious looking cake). I think that the discrepancies between first and third person response would differ to a similar extent and would really be interested in knowing if empathy in the positive is as powerful.

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    1. Ohh yes! I would love to know the results to a study like that.
      Brain responses to pain and emotion aren't always that far off from each other.

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  4. I was particularly interested in one of views discussed by Dr. Jackson in his talk, namely that empathy (in particular the ‘regulation component’ which involves what he calls a ‘prosocial attitude') might have been facilitated by pain resonance. One of objection to this view, as he mentioned, is that even people who suffer from congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) can assess other people’s pain and often desire to help others if they think they are suffering. So pain resonance, it could be argued, does not play a role in eliciting the prosocial attitude. I do not find this objection convincing however. It seems that the ability of CIP people to assess other people’s pain might well be the result of learning (either explicitly when their family and friends provide them with information such as “If you see someone winces in this way, that means he is not comfortable” or implicitly if they notice which kind of behavior people exhibit when they say they are in pain). If it is the result of learning, it would suggest that a community of people who did not have the pain resonance mechanism would not have been able to assess each other’s pain at all and help each other accordingly. Thus, it seems likely that they would not have displayed empathic responses.

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  5. I found Dr. Jackson's talk very interesting, particularly the data he showed with people who score at higher levels of the psychopathy tests as well as people with congenital insensitivity to pain. He also mentioned briefly that there are studies which examine responses with parent/child relationships. While it would seem logical that an emotional connection to the individual experiencing pain would result in a higher empathetic response, I was curious id there is any studies which has examined the differences in the pain perception in children vs. adults?

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  6. To what extent is cognitive machinery necessary for perception of pain? The authors in the Danziger 2009 paper referenced above by Dr. Jackson dissociate 'pain sensation' from 'pain cognition' and 'pain emotion'. CIPs are assumed to have no 'pain sensation' because their pain fibers are either lacking or abnormal. For these authors then, 'pain sensation' is equivalent to nociception. We can extend these thoughts to broader questions about 'feeling', and ask: is nociception a type of feeling? If not, then what cognitive machinery (if any...) is required for feelings to arise? Answers to these questions might help answer the Distribution Question - what animals besides humans feel/are conscious?

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  7. If we assume the person in the scanner who is looking at expression of pain is ‘feeling’ and not only *doing, and we can measure or quantify their feeling by brain activation, would there be any equivalent test we could perform to evaluate if a robot is experiencing that same ‘feeling’? If one succeeded the Turing test, is there currently any way to measure or know if the robot is feeling empathy for example? To pass the Turing test, would a robot have to demonstrate empathy, at least behaviourally?

    Finally, (I had this question on the day of the talk in my notes and completely forgot to post it!) just to clarify, as in many studies shown in Phillip Jackson’s talk, where people are in scanners and shown images of other people experiencing pain, though passively watching and ‘feeling’ with/for the person, the brain activations observed are part of the *doing category? (Because they are observable by the researchers)

    Izabo Deschênes

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    1. Brain activity is doing. What we measure when we measure brain activity is doing. Yes, the person is feeling too, and the brain activity (doing) is correlated with the feeling, but what we are measuring is not the feeling. (And the question is: how and why is feeling correlated with that brain activity?)

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