How we know it hurts: item analysis of written narratives reveals distinct neural responses to others' physical pain and emotional suffering
Bruneau, E.; Dufour, N.; Saxe, R.
Plos one 8(4): E63085
People are often called upon to witness, and to empathize with, the pain and suffering of others. In the current study, we directly compared neural responses to others' physical pain and emotional suffering by presenting participants (n = 41) with 96 verbal stories, each describing a protagonist's physical and/or emotional experience, ranging from neutral to extremely negative. A separate group of participants rated "how much physical pain", and "how much emotional suffering" the protagonist experienced in each story, as well as how "vivid and movie-like" the story was. Although ratings of Pain, Suffering and Vividness were positively correlated with each other across stories, item-analyses revealed that each scale was correlated with activity in distinct brain regions. Even within regions of the "Shared Pain network" identified using a separate data set, responses to others' physical pain and emotional suffering were distinct. More broadly, item analyses with continuous predictors provided a high-powered method for identifying brain regions associated with specific aspects of complex stimuli - like verbal descriptions of physical and emotional events.