Empathizing with Difference

In a 2010 study entitled ‘How do we empathize with someone who is not like us? A functional magenetic resonance imaging study’, Lamm, Meltzoff, and Decety measured empathic neural circuits and connectivity coding for somatosensory, affective, and cognitive aspects of the perception of pain in similar and dissimilar others. Participants in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) observed images of hands being pricked with an injection needle or stroked with a cotton swab. While observing these images, participants were instructed to vividly imagine the affective state of the person whose hand was shown in the images. Additionally, participants were given a cover story that some of these hands belonged to neurological patients with a disorder causing pain when touched by a soft object, and neutral, touch-like sensation when pricked by a needle. The neurological disorder in this cover story reflects some of the pain related sensorimotor impairments that can occur with spinal cord injury (SCI), specifically mechanical allogynia, which causes non-painful tactile sensation to be perceived as painful. The authors hypothesized that empathizing with dissimilar others would involve decreased activations of the pain matrix and increased activations to regions subserving the cognitive and executive aspects of empathic pain, such as emotion regulation and self-other distinction. That is, witnessing stimuli that is painful to oneself but not to another would involve greater neural recruitment to assist with perspective-taking and imagining the situation by or for another person, whilst regulating one’s own affective responses.

Lamm, Meltzoff, and Decety’s (2009) findings are surprising for a few reasons. Rather than finding increased activations in areas involved in cognitive, top-down empathic processes, they found that participants had activations of regions within the pain matrix for both similar and dissimilar others. Specifically stimuli that was neutral for the participant but painful for the dissimilar target activated the pain matrix, particularly in regions related to the affective component of pain, such as bi-lateral anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The authors write, “This indicates that sharing the painful affective state of dissimilar targets relies upon neural mechanisms that are also at play when empathizing with the pain of similar others.” (p. 371) However, observing stimuli that is painful for oneself but neutral for another had more complex findings that are more fitting with the author’s hypotheses. As compared to images of nonpainful stimili with normal patients, participants exhibited greater activations in brain regions associated with cognitive control and perspective-taking when looking at images of nonpainful stimuli with dissimilar patients. Specifically, witnessing neutral stimuli applied to dissimilar others increased activations in the right inferior frontal cortex (rIFC) and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), areas associated with cognitive control and perspective taking, and in the anterior insula (AI) and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), areas processing the affective components of pain. This indicates that it is more difficult to inhibit, regulate, and control our own affective response to painful stimuli than it is for us to imagine a painful experience for another to stimuli that we normal experience with neutral valence.

The study aptly addresses the issue that in our day-to-day lives and increasingly intercultural world, we often have to consider viewpoints of people who may differ from us in terms of values, response patterns, sensation/perception, and abilities. Thus, empathizing cannot always be a case of incorporating another into one’s own self-concept but must also involve recognizing that another person might have a different orientation that configures his or her experience to a specific situation. This paper is important because it is a first step in understanding how we empathize with people who are different from ourselves, and suggests that extending our own affective response is easier and simpler than adopting another person’s affective response when our own affective response is still strong.


Lamm, C., Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2010). How do we empathize with someone who is not like us? A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 22(2), 362-376.

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