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Elife. 2016 Jun 14;5. pii: e15166. doi: 10.7554/eLife.15166.

Somatic and vicarious pain are represented by dissociable multivariate brain patterns.

Krishnan A1,2,3, Woo CW1,2, Chang LJ1,2,4, Ruzic L1,2,5, Gu X6,7, López-Solà M1,2, Jackson PL8, Pujol J9, Fan J10,11, Wager TD1,2.

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Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, United States.
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, United States.
Department of Psychology, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, United States.
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, United States.
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, United States.
Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London, United Kingdom.
School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, United States.
École de Psychologie, Université Laval, Quebec City, Canada.
MRI Research Unit, Radiology Department, Hospital del Mar, CIBERSAM G21, Barcelona, Spain.
Department of Psychology, Queens College of the City University of New York, New York City, United States.
Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, United States.


Understanding how humans represent others' pain is critical for understanding pro-social behavior. 'Shared experience' theories propose common brain representations for somatic and vicarious pain, but other evidence suggests that specialized circuits are required to experience others' suffering. Combining functional neuroimaging with multivariate pattern analyses, we identified dissociable patterns that predicted somatic (high versus low: 100%) and vicarious (high versus low: 100%) pain intensity in out-of-sample individuals. Critically, each pattern was at chance in predicting the other experience, demonstrating separate modifiability of both patterns. Somatotopy (upper versus lower limb: 93% accuracy for both conditions) was also distinct, located in somatosensory versus mentalizing-related circuits for somatic and vicarious pain, respectively. Two additional studies demonstrated the generalizability of the somatic pain pattern (which was originally developed on thermal pain) to mechanical and electrical pain, and also demonstrated the replicability of the somatic/vicarious dissociation. These findings suggest possible mechanisms underlying limitations in feeling others' pain, and present new, more specific, brain targets for studying pain empathy.


empathy; fMRI; human; multivariate patterns; neuroscience; pain

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