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Does Pain Help You Empathize More With Others?

As human beings, we are attuned to other people's distress or pain. Now, however, an interesting new angle to empathy is surfacing. It seems that having experienced pain yourself might make you better equipped to empathize with other people. Ironically, this could mean that pain may actually be good for more reasons than you'd imagine!

Empathy is an important part of being human. It enables you to see the other person’s side of an argument, to understand what is troubling them, and “feel” what is hurting them emotionally, mentally, or physically. But does this feeling extend to actual physical experience too? Can pain itself help you be more empathetic or sympathetic to another person’s problems and pain?

Why Pain Is Good

Surprising though it may be, pain experienced either in the form of an unpleasant emotional or physical experience could actually be serving you well. While its role in exposing underlying symptoms of illness or warning you of potential tissue damage or harm is well studied, its psychosocial impact is now being explored more extensively.

The Overlap Between Direct Personal Pain And Observed Pain

Neuroimaging has shown researchers that there is an overlap between the neural structures activated by observing pain in someone else and by a personal or direct pain experience. The result – shared experience of pain between the subject and the other person actually experiencing the pain.1

Prior Pain Experience And Empathy

Personal experience and first-hand experience of physical pain can help with the ability to understand the pain someone else is dealing with. Which is why your personal body-related experience can influence your ability to be empathetic.2 One study noted that those who had prior pain experiences showed empathetic responses more readily.3

Shared Pain And Empathetic Behavior

Perceiving pain may drive you to help someone, stimulates cooperation, and allows you to reach a point of acceptance, depending on the situation. Pain itself plays a positive role in helping with self-regulation, improving your interpersonal connections and even facilitating pleasure. Researchers have described it as a “social glue,” helping unite people and improve their understanding of one another. One study put two separate groups of test subjects through a painful experience. While one group had to plunge their hands into ice cold water and do leg squats, the other was told to eat a spicy chili pepper. After this shared painful experience, perceived bonding between the strangers increased and there was a sense of trust.4 Empathy itself then manifests as helping behavior.

Can Painkillers Numb Your Empathy?

Just as much as experiencing or “feeling” someone else’s pain can improve your empathy for their situation, painkillers could numb this ability. A study found that the acetaminophen or paracetamol, found in the popular painkiller Tylenol and many other medicines, cuts down on your ability to empathize with the pain someone else feels. One study investigated the impact of a 1000 mg dose of acetaminophen on college students and found startling results. Test subjects were shown stories about people who were hurt and then asked to comment on the pain of those characters. Those who had the painkiller perceived the pain of the characters as being much less than what those on placebo perceived it to be. The test subjects also showed less empathy to other people’s socially painful experiences. For instance, if someone else was rejected and felt hurt, those on the acetaminophen did not feel as concerned. With about a quarter of all adults in the United States taking the medication on an average every single week, there is merit to further research in the area.5

References   [ + ]

1. Lamm, Claus, Jean Decety, and Tania Singer. “Meta-analytic evidence for common and distinct neural networks associated with directly experienced pain and empathy for pain.” Neuroimage 54, no. 3 (2011): 2492-2502.
2. Lamm, Claus, C. Daniel Batson, and Jean Decety. “The neural substrate of human empathy: effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal.” Journal of cognitive neuroscience 19, no. 1 (2007): 42-58.
3. Jackson, Philip L., Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Jean Decety. “How do we perceive the pain of others? A window into the neural processes involved in empathy.” Neuroimage 24, no. 3 (2005): 771-779.
4. Bastian, Brock, Jolanda Jetten, and Laura J. Ferris. “Pain as Social Glue Shared Pain Increases Cooperation.” Psychological science(2014): 0956797614545886.
5. Mischkowski, Dominik, Jennifer Crocker, and Baldwin M. Way. “From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience (2016): nsw057.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.