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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