Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More
Have you ever said, “I feel your pain,” to someone who is struggling? A popular phrase in today’s culture, the statement is a modern-day expression of empathy. It indicates that we understand the person’s experience – or at least are trying to understand it, even if we can’t ever really know what it’s like to be in another person’s skin. And it means that we grasp that the person is hurting, either physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
It turns out that when we say, “I feel your pain,” we’re not lying. In a recent study published in the journal Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, researchers explored which parts of the brain were activated during empathy toward social exclusion. In other words, the researchers wondered which parts of the brain turned on when a person witnessed someone being bullied, ignored, or otherwise excluded from a social group.
The study was based on some original research showing that when we directly experience threats to our own social bonds, the portion of our brain that activates is the same portion that lights up (on an fMRI machine, that is) when we experience physical pain. Interesting, huh? Perhaps this explains why social rejection can actually feel like a punch in the gut sometimes. The researchers wanted to take this one step further to see if people’s brains behaved in the same way when they saw someone else going through similar social turmoil.
In the study, participants were first tested on the original finding – that the pain center of the brain would activate when they experienced social exclusion firsthand. After this was confirmed, the participants viewed another person being socially excluded. What do you think happened? You guessed it – the same pain center of the brain lit up.
This study fascinates me for a couple of reasons. First, the idea that social and physical pain activate the same part of the brain speaks volumes about the damage that can be done by bullying, teasing, marginalizing, and otherwise being cruel to others. This kind of behavior has the potential to hurt us deeply on a level not previously understood.
Second, the fact that our brain responds to another’s pain in the same way it processes our own pain makes me ever hopeful that empathy and compassion can be nurtured in our society. We already know that the capacity to empathize is there on a spiritual level; now we have evidence that the very manner in which we are built allows us to empathize with those who are suffering.
Let us not waste this intentional capability to be present with others who are hurting.
Novembre, G., Zanon, M., & Silani, G. (2014). Empathy for social exclusion involves the sensory-discriminative component of pain: A within-subject fMRI study. Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience, Advance Access. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu038