How our brains evoke empathy when we see others in pain has been explained by a new study.
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, the study from Mount Sinai School of Medicine suggests that seeing others in pain can automatically engage the brain's empathy systems, even if a person is not paying attention.
For their study, the researchers showed people images of hands and feet in painful or non-painful situations, and simultaneously scanned their brains using magnetic resonance imaging.
Under some conditions the subjects paid attention to whether the situation was painful, while in other conditions they paid attention to other aspects of the images.
The researchers observed that a brain area, called the insula, responded to pain even when the subject was not paying attention to pain, while another area, called the anterior cingulate cortex, was important for the voluntary control of empathy for pain.
They say that their findings help understand how the social brain responds to others' pain.