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Neuroimage. 2009 Aug 15;47(2):722-34. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.04.091. Epub 2009 May 9.

Social context and perceived agency affects empathy for pain: an event-related fMRI investigation.

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  • 1Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago, 5848 S. University Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


Studying of the impact of social context on the perception of pain in others is important for understanding the role of intentionality in interpersonal sensitivity, empathy, and implicit moral reasoning. Here we used an event-related fMRI with pain and social context (i.e., the number of individuals in the stimuli) as the two factors to investigate how different social contexts and resulting perceived agency modulate the neural response to the perception of pain in others. Twenty-six healthy participants were scanned while presented with short dynamic visual stimuli depicting painful situations accidentally caused by or intentionally caused by another individual. The main effect of perception of pain was associated with signal increase in the aMCC, insula, somatosensory cortex, SMA and PAG. Importantly, perceiving the presence of another individual led to specific hemodynamic increase in regions involved in representing social interaction and emotion regulation including the temporoparietal junction, medial prefrontal cortex, inferior frontal gyrus, and orbitofrontal cortex. Furthermore, the functional connectivity pattern between the left amygdala and other brain areas was modulated by the perceived agency. Our study demonstrates that the social context in which pain occurs modulate the brain response to other's pain. This modulation may reflect successful adaptation to potential danger present in a social interaction. Our results contribute to a better understanding of the neural mechanisms underpinning implicit moral reasoning that concern actions that can harm other people.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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