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Pleasure and Pain
Pleasure-Seeking Behaviour
Pleasure and Drugs
Avoiding Pain

HelpLink : Intentional Attunement: Mirror Neurons and the Neural Underpinnings of Interpersonal RelationsLink : Embodied simulation: From neurons to phenomenal experienceLink : Mirroring, Mindreading, and Simulation
Link : EmpathieLink : Pierre Rainville fait souffrir des sujets de recherche depuis sept ansLink : A Social-Neuroscience Perspective on EmpathyLink : How your brain handles love and pain
Link : We can literally feel the pain of strangers, study findsLink : The empathic brain: how, when and why?Link : The painful side of empathyLink : Empathy For Pain Activates Pain-sensitive Regions Of The Brain, Says UCL Study
Link : Book : Empathy in Mental IllnessLink : To what extent do we share the pain of others? Insight from the neural bases of pain empathy
Experiment : Inner experience of pain: imagination of pain while viewing images showing painful events forms subjective pain representation in human brainExperiment : Shared representations in body perceptionExperiment : Empathy examined through the neural mechanisms involved in imagining how I feel versus how you feel painExperiment : A Perception-Action Model of Cognitive Empathy? A PET Investigation of Imagining Your Own Experience and Someone Else’s

The mirror neurons in the premotor area of our brains do not react to just any movements of someone else’s mouth or hands, but only to those movements that are goal-oriented. The response of these neurons thus depends on the goal that we discern in the observed movement—the intention that we attribute to it.

The mirror neurons in our brain’s motor system can thus help us to decode the meanings of actions performed by other people, and hence their mental states. Some authors think that this mechanism for interpreting gestures is also applied to verbal communication, in particular in the perception of speech.

People who are mourning a death or a lost love or reacting to some form of social rejection often describe their emotional pain in terms similar to those used for physical pain. According to many pain specialists, the connection between the two is more than metaphorical.

For example, in a study where the subjects played a video game that made them feel rejected, brain images revealed activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that is important in the physical-pain matrix—the brain circuits that let us know the risks of being injured or that lead us to take special care of parts of our body that have in fact been injured.

Because we are a highly social species in which mutual assistance is important, becoming isolated or losing our most significant personal relationships has always constituted a threat to our survival, whether by making us more vulnerable to predators in prehistoric times or by causing us to join the ranks of the socially outcast and homeless in today’s big cities.

Thus our social-attachment system seems to use our physical-pain system to ensure that we maintain relations with other people. Accordingly, being separated from a loved one or rejected by a group is painful to us, and we tend to avoid such situations when we can.

Link : Is pain all in the mind?Link : Physical/Social Pain Overlap TheoryLink : Emotional pain hurts more than physical pain, researchers say

Our ability to feel what other people are feeling seems to be manifested through mechanisms that are largely involuntary and non-intentional. Thus, human empathic responses appear very early in the course of children’s development; children seem to be literally “pre-wired” to form relationships with their mothers.

This affective resonance is important not only for creating the critical bond between children and their mothers, but also for creating the emotional ties with other individuals that will foster mutual assistance and reproduction later in life, and hence the survival of the species in the long run. This automatic mental resonance with other people also helps us to make quick predictions about other people’s actions and needs, thereby improving communication, an important adaptive asset in a social species such as ours.

Human empathy would thus appear to be deeply rooted in the evolutionary history of our non-human primate ancestors and, many authors believe, would appear to provide a biological basis for our moral behaviours. Scientists have proposed many possible mechanisms to explain how human empathy may have developed. Among the most significant of these mechanisms are those involving mirror neurons.

The first part of the brain in which mirror neurons were identified was the premotor cortex, in the early 1990s. Some neurons in this area become activated when we make a particular motion, such as picking up a cup to drink from it. However, some of these same neurons also become activated when we are completely motionless ourselves but see someone else making exactly the same motion. The discovery that a visual stimulus can thus activate neurons in a motor area of the brain in a very specific way aroused great interest in the scientific community.

Subsequent studies identified mirror neurons in various other parts of the brain as well. Because mirror neurons let us simulate in our own brains what is going on in someone else’s, this combination of their neurons and our own has been described as a “shared neural network”. Studies have found such shared neural networks not only in the sensorimotor circuits of the brain, but also in the brain circuits responsible for emotional reactions. This may help to explain why, for example, we can be moved to tears by an actor in a film or on stage: the actor’s expressions of an emotion may activate the parts of our own brains that correspond to this emotion.

These findings made it necessary to define mirror neurons more broadly as a class of neurons that are activated not only when we experience an endogenous cognitive event ourselves, but also when we see signs that another individual is experiencing (or is about to experience) the same kind of cognitive event.

The top picture, of one person’s finger in a painful situation, activates the anterior cingulate cortex (the larger of the two yellow areas in the bottom picture) in the brain of a person who is looking at it.

Source: Jean Decety, University of Washington, Seattle


In the case of pain, for example, one such sign might be that person’s behaving in some way that expresses suffering, or simply making a facial expression indicating that he or she is in pain. But the discharge of our mirror neurons associated with pain could also be triggered simply by the sight of a knife being pressed against someone else’s skin (not even necessarily someone we know).

A number of brain-imaging studies have located a network of areas in the brain that are active when we experience physical pain. These studies have also shown, however, that when we have an empathic response to someone else’s pain, not all parts of these same circuits become active, but mainly the parts associated with the unpleasant affective component of pain: the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. The primary and secondary somatosensory areas, as well as areas such as the posterior insula, are highly active when we are experiencing pain ourselves, but do not react as much when we observe someone else’s pain.

These studies thus reveal a partial overlap between someone’s neural activity when they are actually having a painful experience themselves and their neural activity when they are observing someone else having such an experience. The partial nature of this activation has suggested some possible explanations of how we distinguish these two situations so as not to confuse someone else’s distress with our own.

Philip L. Jackson and other authors have shown that experiencing empathy for other people’s pain does not generate the same activation patterns in our brains as imagining ourselves to be in pain when we are not actually in the midst of a painful experience. When we imagine ourselves in pain, the pain matrix is activated in far broader areas of the brain, including in particular the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex.

However, some studies using transcranial magnetic stimulation have shown that we do have some ability to map the part of another person’s body that is in pain onto our own somatosensory cortex. Further experiments will be needed to determine the true extent of this isomorphism in the empathic response.

Be that as it may, the role of brain structures such as the anterior cingulate cortex in empathic responses to other people’s observed emotions has been confirmed in situations not involving pain. For example, this structure becomes activated not only when someone smells an unpleasant odour themselves, but also when they see an expression of disgust on the face of someone else who is smelling such an odour.


Some individuals lack empathy and the ability to perceive other people’s emotions. This is the case for psychopaths, who often have only very superficial affective states, feeling little or no remorse, for example, when they commit a crime. This difficulty in experiencing their own emotions makes it hard for them to recognize other people’s distress, as has been confirmed by the limited responses measured in the autonomic nervous systems of psychopaths while they are witnessing other people experiencing fear, sadness, or disgust.

People with autism are another group who often show a limited ability to feel empathy for others. In one study, for example, Iacoboni asked autistic children and normal children to observe and imitate facial expressions for various emotions while he recorded the children’s brain activity with a functional magnetic resonance imaging device. Though both groups performed the task successfully, the autistic children showed less activity in their mirror-neuron circuits, especially in the inferior frontal area, while doing so. Moreover, the extent to which this activity was reduced corresponded to the severity of their autistic symptoms. Iacoboni therefore concluded that the integrity of our mirror-neuron systems seems to be essential for normal social development.

Link : Scientists Say Everyone Can Read MindsLink : Des circuits neurologiques prédisposent à l'empathieExperiment : Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disordersLink : The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions

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