Saturday, November 14, 2009

I Feel Your Pain, I REALLY Do: Synaesthesia for Another's Pain

"I feel your pain"

Empathy for another person's pain is a hot topic of study in the glamorous field of social cognitive neuroscience. The capacity for empathy supposedly involves mirror neurons, those media darlings of The Young, [The Not-So-Young], and The Neuro:
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.
These magical cells have even inspired famous neuroscientists to utter ridiculous hyperbole:

The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons".

by V.S. Ramachandran
Synesthesia for pain, a newly described syndrome, goes one step further (Fitzgibbon et al., 2009):
In synaesthesia for pain a person not only empathises with another's pain but experiences the observed or imagined pain as if it was their own. Neural mechanisms potentially involved in synaesthesia for pain include “mirror systems”: neural systems active both when observing an action, or experiencing an emotion or sensation and when executing the same action, or personally experiencing the same emotion or sensation. For example, we may know that someone is in pain in part because observation activates similar neural networks as if we were experiencing that pain ourselves. We propose that synaesthesia for pain may be the result of painful and/or traumatic experiences causing disinhibition in the mirror system underlying empathy for pain.
And what is synesthesia, exactly? According to Edward M. Hubbard's website, SYNESTHESIA can be defined as unusual conscious experience, in which stimulation of one sensory modality leads to a sensory experience in a second, unstimulated sensory modality. For example, seeing letters might lead some people to see colors. Others report that the days of the week or months of the year are arranged like a map in space. Still others report that hearing voices or music cause them to see colors, or that hearing words makes them taste fact, almost any sensory modality can be involved in synesthesia.
One of the more common forms of synesthesia (illustrated above) is grapheme-color synesthesia, where numbers and letters are consistently associated with specific colors (Ward et al., 2005). A more unusual form is lexical-gustatory synesthesia, in which spoken and written words elicit specific taste sensations that remain constant (Ward & Simner, 2003). For instance, Tony Blair tastes like desiccated coconut.

According to the recent review of the literature by Fitzgibbon et al. (2009), amputees with phantom limb pain comprise the vast majority of those with synaesthesia for pain:
Known Characteristics of Synaesthesia for Pain in a Sample of Amputees with Phantom Pain

Brought on by viewing others in pain and/or observing pain on the television and in movies.

Brought on both when observed pain matches that of the amputated site and/or any general pain

Brought on regardless of the identity of the observed person in pain, i.e. can be a loved one or a stranger.

The experience is similar to the experiences of phantom pain, for example, described as a short sudden ‘electric shock’.

Experienced in the phantom limb and/or stump.
The researchers propose that:
pain experiences may cause disinhibition of mechanisms underlying empathy for pain, resulting in synaesthesia for pain. This proposal is supported by studies that have found mirror activity to be involved in the pain matrix (e.g. Ochsner et al., 2008 and Singer et al., 2004); however, the specific processes that weaken these inhibitory mechanisms are unclear...
Ultimately, in synaesthesia for pain, "there is no self–other distinction in the observation of pain in another person."


Fitzgibbon, B., Giummarra, M., Georgiou-Karistianis, N., Enticott, P., & Bradshaw, J. (2009). Shared pain: From empathy to synaesthesia. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.10.007

Ward J, Simner J. (2003). Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia: linguistic and conceptual factors. Cognition 89:237-61.

Ward J, Simner J, Auyeung V. (2005). A comparison of lexical-gustatory and grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Cognitive Neuropsychology 22:28-41.

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At November 15, 2009 9:39 AM, Anonymous Jared said...

Nice post. I'm someone who can feel someone else's pain when I see them in pain. It's not an intense pain but I get a really uncomfortable feeling and mild pain - it's worse with people I know better but it happens with complete strangers too. I only get this pain when people are physically hurt - or intensely grieving, like when a loved-one just passed away.

At November 16, 2009 7:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do mirror neurons pick up physical pain opposed to emotional pain or both?

At November 16, 2009 8:19 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

The term "mirror neuron" is often used very loosely in humans to refer to areas outside the classic mirror neuron regions in monkeys (ventral premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex). I don't think "empathy neurons" have ever been demonstrated in animals.

Using fMRI in humans, brain regions in the "pain matrix" can respond to watching others in either physical or emotional pain.

At November 17, 2009 6:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose Republicans don't have these...

At November 19, 2009 3:19 AM, Blogger Simz said...

really interesting ... but how do the mirror neurons get dis inhibited ?

At November 24, 2009 10:55 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

Oh dear, my respect for V.S. Ramachandran has just fallen a notch. My Dalai Lama neurones are not firing for him. Or something.

At November 24, 2009 12:21 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

If you want your respect to fall another notch or two, check out some of these Ramachandran titles in the quackery journal of Medical Hypotheses.

At March 20, 2010 10:38 PM, Anonymous Jennifer said...

I am trying to find an explanation for a sensation I have felt for all of my life. Whenever I see a loved one cut, bleeding or injured I feel the sensation of an electric shock in both arms (not necessarily the injured area on the loved one) any ideas of what this might be? -

At March 21, 2010 12:06 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

There's a recent article in New Scientist, We feel your pain: Extreme empaths that says:

"Get in touch: If you experience pain synaesthesia, Bernadette Fitzgibbon would like to hear from you. You can contact her here."

At February 07, 2014 11:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had this for a while. I never thought to investigate what it is until this past week. I don't recall when the pain started, but I chalked it up to having neuropathy in my feet. I can see someone being hurt, hear a word like needle and the electric zap rushes from my toes to my knees. Even visualizing what razor wire looks like, zaps me. I wish it would just STOP.

At May 26, 2014 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well to the anonymous above that said Republicans don't have these pains- you are wrong I am a Republican I have these pains generally just the physical pain, but I do have the emotional ones - if and when I hear democrats speak my mind goes blank, I pity their lack of brains, this makes me feel very sad for them.

At August 01, 2014 10:34 PM, Blogger VOLTAIRE said...

When I see others hurt or just hear of it, I experience a severe "discomfort" centred in the groin region but larger.

No, its not sexual or pleasant in any way.

It seems to be getter worse as I age.

At October 30, 2014 10:43 AM, Anonymous Luisa said...

This started happening to me about six years ago. Before that I wasn't so affected by seeing someone else get hurt. I went through a very deep depression and regressed as well due to the depression. Anyway if I see someone fall down my whole body clenches up, my legs get stiff, and my heart races. It's very uncomfortable and I can barely handle even hearing someone describing something painful. It's really weird and not a good thing. Sometimes it seems to affect me more than the other person.

At January 18, 2015 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I see anybody fall down or get hit or have just about any other sort of injury, the same area of my body gets an uncomfortable tingle, practically incapacitating me for a few moments. It in no way matches "real" pain, but it has disturbed me my entire life.

At March 15, 2015 2:48 PM, Anonymous Eleanor said...

A few years ago I found out to my surprise that not all people see colours over letters or words on a page. I may also see a number, for instance the letter 'a' on a page is often associated with a yellow cloud over it and the number 4. Green, '3' and the letter 'e', middle 'c', with blue and '5'. It is not constant but when I relax or am tired.
I also see colours over members of an orchestra if they are prominent or out of tune (colours not so nice then). Numbers are also recognized then.

I am a chiropractor and for years when someone comes in to my office for example with shoulder pain, I am drawn by looks and by feel, for example to an undisclosed area, say for instance their right shin. I may or may not ask if there is a problem there. I may go to the area manually, if I am already treating another area of the body. The person, invariably will ask how I knew they were having difficulty there, and when I do feel compelled I cannot offer a good explanation but can only admit that I 'hear' the area. It is not a recognizable tone, but a sort of a hum. I'm not sure if this is part of my other sense anomalies.

At August 13, 2015 12:34 PM, Anonymous Theresa Ashby said...

Ever since I can remember, whenever i see someone fall off a cliff(On TV) , or when I am watching a program and for example The camera over looks a city from a plane or tall building,or when I see a for example a skater take a bad fall, My legs always get a pain in them like no other, its not a sharp pain it is a lingering i guess you could say electrical shock but not really strong and it lasts for maybe 15 sec. It is so strange it is almost like my legs have been broken in a "past life" or something, is this what you are talking about? Can you figure out what happening to me?

At October 07, 2015 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,
Ever since I was a child I would feel pain in both of my calves when someone gets physically hurt. It lasts only for a few seconds, feels a bit like an electrical zap. Even if I see something on TV it happens. Have no idea why and I have no control over it. I live in Virginia, am originally from Germany. I am now in my early 40's, have never paid much attention to it until recently. Would like to find out more about it.

At November 11, 2015 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi everyone! Just here to say I googled this whole topic to try and understand why my groin hurts when I see someone in pain. Today it happened at the mention of someone pricking their finger to take a blood sample. Just the mention of it made my nether regions twinge unpleasantly, as though I was trying to protect the groin area from some kind of proximate physical danger. I'm glad to read that I'm not the only one. I don't know if this has worsened with age or if I'm simply more aware of it now.


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