Study of the motor correlate in the functional model of empathy for pain

We all know there’s a link between our bodies and our emotions, but much remains to be understood. The most innovative aspect of Bucchioni’s project is her search for correlations between empathy for pain, bodily posture and a host of physiological indexes. The idea is that by measuring such factors as heart and breathing rate and electrical activity in muscle, she will help neuroscientists better understand the interactions between motor systems and emotional control.

How do Human Emotions and Motor Systems Interact to Create Empathy?

In her own words...

Empathy is a complex construct that plays an essential social role, allowing us to understand and react to the other person’s emotional and sensory states (Thompson 2001). Current neuroscientific models postulate the neuronal correlate of empathy has shared neural circuits with mirror neurons, special kind of neurons becoming active when expressive acts are both executed and perceived (Gallese and Sinigaglia, 2011). Along these lines, it has been shown that the neuronal nociception circuits are activated both for one’s own pain and by the observation of pain in another individual (Morrison et al. 2004).

The main purpose of this project is to investigate the effect that an affiliation context, i.e. empathy for pain, has on general human motor behaviour. Different experiments will be conducted in order to study activations of the central and peripheral human motor system. In these experiments the motor components will be analysed recording the following outcomes: (i) modulation of postural control; (ii) electromyographic (EMG) activity of leg muscles; (iii) motor evoked potentials; (iv) electroencephalographic activity (EEG); (v) reaction times. Moreover the response of other physiological measures will be correlated to the motor response. In all the experiments human healthy subjects will be exposed to different kind of visual stimuli (images or video-clips) showing hands or feet in painful or non-painful situations. In these studies we predict to find a modulation of the spontaneous motor responses in function of: (i) the activation and arousal of the emotional images, highlighted by a ‘freezing’ behaviour for the observation of painful images. We also hypothesize that: (i) the physiological responses will be modulated by the adopted perspective and will correlate with the motor response; (ii) the amplitude of EEG response, in terms of mu rhythm modulation (Perry et al. 2010) and readiness potential amplitude, may predict the motor response in the tasks; (iv) the EMG pattern recorded from the subject’s right leg and hand muscles will be different between the observation of the two painful limbs.
This study will help us to improve our knowledge on the motor components implied in social behaviours in the context of empathy for pain. Indeed this project will permit us to better understand the interactions between the systems of motor and emotional control. Finally this study will lead us to a better comprehension of the mechanisms entailed in social relations and those involved in the malfunctions of the systems that control motor and emotion processes.

Gallese, V. and C. Sinigaglia (2011). "What is so special about embodied simulation?" Trends Cogn Sci 15(11):512-9 Morrison, I., D. Lloyd, et al. (2004). "Vicarious responses to pain in anterior cingulate cortex: is empathy a multisensory issue?" Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 4(2): 270-8. Perry, A., Bentin, S., Bartal, I. B., Lamm, C., Decety, J. (2010). "Feeling" the pain of those who are different from us: Modulation of EEG in the mu/alpha range. Cogn, Affect & Behav Neurosci, 10: 493-504 Thompson, E. (2001) “Empathy and consciousness”. J. Consc. Stud. 8: 1–32.

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Université de Picardie Jules Verne