How the Brain Responds to a Loved One's Pain

In Tender Morsels, Liga's daughter Urdda grew up not knowing the circumstances of her birth. When Urdda was fifteen, her mother finally told her of the brutal gang rape that led to her conception. Urdda ran out of the house weeping, unable to deal with the new knowledge. The following passage describes her feelings.

Why couldn’t there have been … some small tale of betrayal or bad luck for which Urdda could have consoled Mam. This was too great a pain, too monstrous a series of injuries. It lumped in the past like…. Like a bear on a hearthrug, impossible to ignore.

When we hear about a loved one suffering, we often suffer along with them. Like Urdda, we feel their pain as if it were our own. Today, I'll talk about the neural basis of this phenomenon.

Tania Singer and colleagues from University College London conducted an experiment on pain and empathy. They recruited couples and put the female partner in the scanner. The significant other remained outside the scanner. During the course of the experiment, they either gave the woman electric shocks, or showed her signals indicating that her significant other was receiving a shock. (Don't worry, volunteers get to set the maximum level of shock themselves, and they get paid a lot of money.)

When the woman received the shock, many pain processing regions became active in her brain, including those that processed the physical sensation as well as the emotional aspect of receiving pain. When the woman saw that her partner was getting shocked, she showed activation in a network that only included the areas that processed the emotional aspects of pain. What’s more, the amount of activation correlated with self reported empathy scores.

In summary, when you hear about a loved one’s pain, you don't activate the regions that process physical sensation, but you suffer the emotional consequences of the pain.
[Edit from Livia:  Later studies have found instances where the regions that process physical sensation also activate]

Can I extrapolate some writing advice from this? Not in a scientifically rigorous way, but it's probably a good reminder to make your readers care about your characters. The closer they feel to them, the more they will suffer along with them. But don't worry, even if your readers are groaning in sympathy, you can rest assured that they're not actually feeling physical pain. :-)

What do you think of these results.  Do they mesh with your personal experience?

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  1. In my experience, to suffer along with the characters makes the book memorable.

    Ever heard of the study by DeWall at the University of Kentucky? Participants taking painkillers reported less hurt feelings than others taking a placebo.

    There are interesting overlaps between physical and emotional pain, but to me this makes the emotional pain of a character all the more real.

  2. I definitely feel pain for both my loved ones and characters in books. My family think it's odd that I cry over books, but it all becomes very real... at least with a well written book and well rounded characters.

  3. I'd be kind of interested in the reverse - did they put the male partner in the scanner?

    Then again, maybe there are things we don't want to know. ;-)

  4. This is a fascinating post. I'm going through a secondary pain thing with my sons, but I'm experiencing the physical as well as the deep emotional pain. The way you have tied this to writing is brilliant. Well done.

  5. This makes so much sense that I wonder why people would spend a lot of money to confirm it....

    But your writing extrapolation is spot on. :)

  6. Actually, I have to disagree. I heard a podcast recently, (forget which one but it's usually NPR On Science?) that said something about adults feeling more sympathetic pain than children do because our bodies physically remember the pain we may have felt doing something similar, like falling off a bike. I may be mis remembering the piece, and if I am PLEASE correct me, but I thought they were saying something to that effect.

    I know for sure that whenever I hear of something painful the place in my tailbone twinges from the only surgery I've ever had (nothing serious). But I definitely feel it.

  7. Phonological sketchpad -- yes, I'e heard of that study. Kinda cool, huh?

    Suelder -- Haha, yeah, maybe some things are better not tested :-)

    Howdidyougetthere - I don't know that result, but I can see how that could happen -- if you start feeling pain if you hear about something that's similar to what you've experienced. That would probably involve more pain than what was used in the study (which was a relatively minor shock.) So yeah, it's probably too simplistic to make a blanket statement that people will never feel sympathetic physical pain. Although it's not my specific subfield, I'm guessing in general that the emotional empathy comes easier than the physical pain, and that the physical pain might be more experience dependent. Thanks for pointing that out :-) That's why you need many studies to get a very good handle on a phenomenon.

  8. Great post, Livia!

    I must confess to being one of the people who feels the physical as well as the emotional pain when a loved one is injured. When my 9-year-old chipped his front teeth, I definitely felt it. In fact, even as I type this months later, my own front teeth are throbbing.

    I wonder what role mirror neurons might play in this phenomenon. Isn't it the case that mirror neurons activate when we see someone else perform a physical action? When I watched Michael Phelps swim for his 8 golds, there was a real sense of vicarious involvement. No, I wasn't doing the butterfly on my couch, but my mirror neurons were firing as if I were. And when he out-touched everybody at the wall, wow, it felt like I'd won the race right alongside him.

    In my books, I want readers to be breathless when the character is running for his or her life. I want the reader to grab her or his shoulder when the character gets shot there. I really do want the whole experience--the physical as well as emotional response.

  9. Rob -- I'm not too familiar with mirror neurons. The sense that I get is that they're not well understood in humans, and some people aren't even convinced to what extent they exist. But yes, that's the general principle behind them.

  10. This is a great thing to keep in mind, thank you. I recently read a short story collection with one story in particular that had me clutching my stomach. Way too much sympathy for what was going on! The author had employed this strategy beautifully.

  11. Freaking hilarious. I loved it!

    Thanks for visiting and joining me :)