A new study published in the journal Pain suggests that sympathizing with others’ discomfort may be entail more than kind words, and that for some people, witnessing others in pain actually does light up parts of the brain associated with pain-processing. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in England recruited 108 college students whose brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), while they looked at images of people enduring pain. The students said that, not only did they experience an emotional reaction to these images—showing people being given injections or athletes getting hurt—but a third said that they actually felt a momentary surge of pain, in the area where the person in the photo was experiencing pain. Researchers found that study participants who reported feeling physical discomfort also showed more activity in the region of the brain associated with pain, as compared with those who didn’t report actually “feeling” sympathetic discomfort. As Dr. Stuart W. G. Derbyshire, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters:
“We think this confirms that at least some people have an actual physical reaction when observing others being injured or expressing pain.”
The researchers said that participants who exhibited greater sensitivity to others’ pain also said they tended to steer clear of horror movies or news stories depicting painful events, so as to avoid experiencing discomfort themselves. Those inclinations, the researchers point out, may reflect more than the emotional response inspired by witnessing pain, but also a physical one, as certain people really do “feel” others’ pain.