Washington: Researchers have said that social pain activates some brain circuits of physical pain whether we feel it personally or when we experience it as an empathic response to other people's pain.
The study by Giorgia Silani, Giovanni Novembre and Marco Zanon of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, is innovative since it adopted a more realistic experimental procedure than used in the past and compared behaviours and the results of functional magnetic resonance imaging in the same subjects, during tests involving both physical and social pain.
The subjects took part in the experimental sessions simulating a ball tossing game, where one of the players was deliberately excluded by the others (condition of social pain).
The player could be the subject herself or her assigned confederate. In another series of experiments the subject or her confederate were administered a mildly painful stimulus (condition of physical pain).
When the subject was not personally the target of the stimulus, she could witness the entirety of her confederate's experience.
Silani said that their data showed that in conditions of social pain there is activation of an area traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain, the posterior insular cortex, asserting that this occurred both when the pain was experienced in first person and when the subject experienced it vicariously.
The study has been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.