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Some people can truly feel other people’s pain! But even if you aren't someone who can literally feel someone else’s sensations, your connections with people can still do some powerful things.

Hosted by: Brit Garner

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Images:

https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/pain-at-the-emergency-room-gm154946132-15750936
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/sad-couple-girl-guy-have-breakfast-drinking-tea-silently-gm1137514289-303367685
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/pregnant-women-eagerly-eating-pizza-gm1130641709-299088841
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/are-you-ok-colleague-gm963126560-263061317

https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/settling-my-cravings-with-some-happy-snacks-gm993591258-269127762
[♪ INTRO].

You might think you’ve really felt someone else’s pain before. Like when you ache for a loved one as they recover from surgery, or cringe as you watch a YouTuber fail at parkour.

But you don’t actually feel like you’ve been sliced open or rammed your groin on a railing. And that’s because what most people call sympathy pains aren’t real pains. Some people can truly feel other people’s pain, though.

These interesting cases can help psychologists understand how pain and empathy work. And it turns out even if you can’t literally feel their sensations, your connections with people can still do some powerful things. There’s no one place in the brain that experiences pain.

Instead, it’s a whole network known as the pain matrix. Different regions of the matrix deal with different aspects of pain. For example, the primary somatosensory cortex is the region responsible for locating and discriminating the sensations you experience, so it deals with how intense the pain is and what kind of pain it is.

It’s pretty objective: it tells you what, where, and how much. The anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, and the insula, meanwhile, deal with your response to the pain. The ACC is tasked with taking sensory inputs and turning them into motor responses, like feeling heat on your palm and moving your hand away from a candle.

The insula is the middleman between sensation and your emotional or cognitive state. It can tell the difference between good and bad pain, like the way burning in your muscles feels kinda good when you lift weights but feels bad after an injection. And when you see other people hurt or think about their pain, some of this matrix does activate.

Studies have found increased ACC and insula activity, for example. But you don’t fully experience their pain. For example, a 2004 study of 16 cisgender heterosexual couples looked at the women’s brain activity when they received pain, then again when they saw their partners in pain.

And there was activity in the insula and the ACC in both conditions. But only when the women received pain themselves did the researchers see activity in the somatosensory cortex. That shows that while there are big similarities in the brain between experiencing pain and seeing someone else in pain, there’s still a pretty clear divide.

That said, there are cases where people do seem to have actual sympathy pains. People with acquired mirror-pain synesthesia literally feel pain when others are hurt. Synesthesia is a condition where a person can experience the stimulation of one sense when a completely different sense is being stimulated.

In people with acquired mirror-pain synesthesia, their pain matrix is activated by seeing or thinking about someone else’s pain. And we’re not entirely sure how. What we do know is that people usually develop the condition after traumatic brain injury or sensory loss, like an amputation.

And studies on brain waves suggest their brains somehow take ownership of the pain. It’s likely that people with this condition have brains that process pain regularly. The difference is that their brains don’t inhibit the activity in certain areas to create that divide between directly experienced pain and the pain of others.

Understanding how that happens can give us a look behind the curtain at how the brain normally processes other people’s pain. And there’s one more group who might experience true sympathy pains: the partners of pregnant people. It’s a controversial phenomenon known as couvade syndrome: basically, people claim to feel symptoms that are similar to those of a pregnant person they’re close to.

These could be anything from backaches and stomachaches to morning sickness and food cravings. And the syndrome is controversial because the symptoms are usually pretty nonspecific, and they don’t really last for a significant amount of time. So it’s proven tough to study what’s really going on in their brains.

The apparent symptoms have been explained as everything from hormonal changes to a psychosomatic condition. Regardless, it does appear to be a real thing that some partners and even siblings of pregnant people have experienced. And figuring out how and why these loved ones experience pain and other physical symptoms without any apparent physical cause might help researchers better understand how those symptoms happen in the brain generally.

If you’re not a synesthete and no one around you is expecting, though, your ability to feel another’s pain only goes so far. This isn’t a bad thing. That brain divide that keeps you from having a real sensory response to someone else’s pain is probably pretty helpful from an evolutionary perspective.

Having some reaction to someone else’s pain helps you take care of your loved ones and make sure you don’t suffer the same fate. But actually experiencing the pain every time would be overwhelming. So, when you “feel” a loved one’s pain, you’re not really feeling it.

What you’re feeling is empathy. If that’s disappointing somehow, you can take heart in knowing that your connection to them is still powerful. Studies have shown that being there for the people you care most about really does make a difference.

For example, in 2017, researchers had 22 couples either hold hands or sit without touching each other while one partner experienced pain. The participants holding hands rated the pain as significantly less intense than those just sitting without touching their partners. And the couples with the highest levels of empathy experienced the greatest pain-relieving effect.

So, you might not feel their pain, but you can lessen it just by being there to hold their hand. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! And thanks especially to Jasmine Larsonion for asking about sympathy pains, and all our patrons who voted for this question in our poll.

You, too, can gain access to our questions inbox and help us decide which questions to answer by becoming one of our patrons. So if you have questions about the brain and how it works, or you want to find out how you can help support SciShow in general, you can learn more about becoming a patron at Patreon.com/SciShow. [♪ OUTRO].