Reseach on feeling pain of other people

Reseach on feeling pain of other people

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I'm more of a tech than bio kind of guy, but I have read and learned a lot alongside of my girlfriend's education. Which is very interesting!!

Currently I want to investigate : people claiming to feel another persons pain when they are touching them.

I cannot seem to Find any papers about it. I guess I'm using the wrong search terms. Or does nobody research about it ?

I believe what you are referring to is called 'sympathetic pain,'and the reason you can't find any papers on the subject is because it is not really a well studied concept. That is primarily due to the lack of robustness in the sensation and idiosyncratic nature of the phenomenon. Personally, I'm not too familiar with the concept beyond placebo treatment of patients with such pains.

HOWEVER, I will explain the different types of pains briefly, their biology, and where the pain you have described fits roughly. There are three categories of pain (scientists sometimes argue four, but for our sake let's say three): nociceptive, inflammatory, and neuropathic. Nociceptive pain is the immediate pain reaction you get when you sense something harmful. It's that jerking sensation you get when you touch something hot or you feel something hazardous coming your way. This pain comes from peripheral nerves that link your senses of touch or perception directly to your spinal chord for an immediate knee jerk reaction. Thus, there is no central nervous system (or brain) processing of the pain, just a reaction. You end up feeling the pain more intensely later once the moment has passed. Then inflammatory pain is the pain you get when you cut or bruise yourself, have allergies, stuffy nose, etc. It is the more common and treatable types of pain and is easy to detect. It comes with redness, swelling, and sensitivity to the general area. Biologically your body is stimulating this pain because your inflammatory system is trying to attack any invasive particles or repair damaged sections of the body. There has been much research done in this type of pain (see sources) and is treatable with non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, Tylenol, etc.

The last type of pain, which is the sympathetic pain falls into, is called neuropathic pain. This pain is more abstract and is often described as constant and idiosyncratic (non standard intervals). In research it is often modeled by inducing diabetes and doing damage to the nerves to cause constant pain signals to the brain. However, the method is controversial in both practice and in efficiency of modeling. This because there are often many different biological ways to induce cognitive pain and it is primarily central nervous system based (aka in the brain), whereas this type of pain is specifically induced by nerve damage (hence neuropathic). This type of pain is often tested using cognitive based test parameters to see if a drug can relieve some of the mental struggles either caused by the pain or causing the pain. There are also such cells called "mirror neurons" that fire when you sense (visual, audio, touch) something and then cause a similar behavior or sensation to occur within the person. It is possible that seeing or feeling someone else's pain causes these mirror neurons to fire for certain people, perhaps due to associate learning or a memory that person has that reminds them of pain they once had. I've attached some literature on the subject for your leisure, but it is a poorly understood science that we are trying to grasp in modern research. Hopefully that answered your question!


  1. The Principles of Neuroscience by: Kandel, Schwartz, Jessel, Siegelbaum, and Hudspeth (most indepth source)

  2. Pyschopharmacology by Meyer and Quezer

  3. From Mice to Men: Jacqueline Crawley

  4. Pathology Based Pain

  5. Inflammatory Pain Review

  6. Neuropathic Pain Review

  7. Mirror Neurons

The OP might be asking about what is called mirror touch synaesthesia

Like all synaesthesia [also spelled synesthesia] this is a new area of research. I have synaesthesia but I don't have this kind. Most researchers study "grapheme synaeshesia" grapheme because that is easier to make into empirical results.

Dr Anina Rich studies synaesthesia. She might have papers about it. Dr Anina Rich

Empathy and the brain

Human empathy depends on the ability to share the emotions of others, to feel what other people feel.

It is regarded by many people as the foundation of moral behavior.

But to some, the concept seems rather airy-fairy. What does it mean to say "I feel your pain"? Isn’t that just a fanciful flight of the imagination?

For one thing, it turns out nonhuman animals--even mice and geese--show evidence of empathy (Decety et al 2016).

For another, empathy has a neurological basis.

The same brain regions that process our first-hand experiences of pain are also activated when we observe other people in pain.

Moreover, when we observe the emotional signals of others, we recruit brain regions associated with theory of mind, the mechanism that permits us to take the perspective of another person (Schulte-Rüther et al 2007).

This theory of mind mechanism, along with the ability to keep our own emotional reactions under control, may be of crucial importance for showing empathic concern, or sympathy. If I don't consider your perspective and control my impulses, I might react to your pain as if it's primarily an irritant or assault on me.

So empathy and empathic concern aren't just ideas. They are rooted in concrete, measurable, physical phenomena, and are part of our nature. That doesn't mean we aren't heavily influenced by ideas, but it suggests that humans don't depend on entirely on cultural training to develop a sense of empathy. 

Here's a quick guide to the biology of empathy, including information about the development of empathy in children.

Empathy in nonhuman animals

In one experiment, 15 rhesus monkeys were trained to get food by pulling chains. Monkeys quickly learned that one chain delivered twice as much food than the other. But then the rules changed. If a monkey pulled the chain associated with the bigger reward, another "bystander" monkey received an electric shock.

After seeing their conspecific get a shock, 10 of the monkeys switched their preferences to the chain associated with the lesser food reward. Two other monkeys stopped pulling either chain—preferring to starve rather than see another monkey in pain (Masserman et al 1964).

Mice, too, respond to the display of pain by their companions. Researchers at McGill University put pairs of mice together and injected one or both of them with a substance that induces mild stomach ache.

Mice reacted to the pain by wriggling and stretching their legs. But the intensity of the reaction depended on social cues. Mice wriggled and stretched more when their companions were also in pain (Langford 2006).

Moreover, mice exposed to the sight of a suffering cage mate were quicker to back away from an unpleasant heat source—suggesting that witnessing their companion’s discomfort made mice more sensitive to their own pain.

So there is nothing particularly human about finding the painful experiences of others unpleasant.

But why is "second-hand" pain unpleasant or upsetting?

Empathy in children

Trailblazing research by neuroscientist Jean Decety suggests a fascinating neurological link between our own, first-hand experience of pain and our perception of pain in other people.

When typically developing kids (aged 7 to 12 years) were presented with images of people getting hurt, the kids experienced more activity in the same neural circuits that process first-hand experiences of pain (Decety et al 2008).

This automatic response--termed "mirroring"--has been documented in a number of other studies, including studies of adults (Lamm et al 2011 Jackson et al 2006). The phenomenon may reflect the activation of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when a person performs an action and he sees that action being performed by others.

To date, researchers have identified specific neurons involved in the mirroring of hand movements in monkeys (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004), and an exciting new experiment has pinpointed specific regions of the premotor cortex (PMC) that permit humans to understand and imitate such movements:

When researchers selectively (and temporarily) knocked out one part of the PMC, people had more difficulty recognizing pantomimed hand actions, but not lip movements. Knocking out another, nearby region yielded the opposite effect (Michael et al 2014).

No one yet has isolated specific mirror neurons for pain or emotion, but evidence in favor of their existence is accumulating (Corradini and Antonietti 2013).

More than mirrors

Mirror neurons may explain how we can experience "second-hand" pain or emotion.

But to respond with empathic concern, we need other information, too.

We need to understand the perspectives of other people.

We also need to overcome our own negative reactions to the display of another person’s pain or distress.

Brain-imaging research seems to confirm this link between theory of mind and empathy. For instance, when people have been asked to evaluate the emotional facial expressions of others, they showed activation in the brain regions associated with theory of mind tasks (Schulte-Rüther et al 2007).

And theory of mind is probably important in other ways. For instance, Jean Decety and his colleagues have investigated how the brain distinguishes between the victims of accidents and victims of aggression.

The neural basis of morality?

To better understand how theory of mind contributes to the perception of "second hand" pain, Decety's team showed kids two sets of images. One set depicted people experiencing painful accidents. The other set showed people who were being victimized by aggressors (Decety et al 2008).

In both scenarios, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that merely looking at images activated brain regions associated with the first-hand experience of pain.

But when kids watched images of one person deliberately inflicting pain on another person, additional brain regions (in the orbital medial frontal cortex and the paracingulate cortex) were activated.

Brain imaging research and studies of brain-damaged patients suggest that these regions are associated with social interaction, emotional self-control, and moral reasoning (Blair 2007 Sturm et al 2006).

Were the additional brain regions activated because the kids were engaged in social and moral thinking? It seems very plausible.

The activation wasn't caused by the mere presence of multiple people in the images, because researchers controlled for that. And when kids were debriefed at the end of the experiment, most of them commented on the unfairness with which the victims had been treated.

Empathy and the brain: Why kids are cruel

The study mentioned above measured the responses of normally-developing kids. What about kids who show a cruel streak?

Decety’s group (2009) conducted a similar fMRI study on teenage boys with conduct disorder, or CD.

This disorder is a serious psychiatric condition linked with behaviors like physical aggression, manipulative lying, sexual assault, cruelty to animals, vandalism, and bullying. It’s also a precursor to antisocial personality disorder in adulthood (Lahey et al 2005).

Researchers screened boys (aged 16-18) for CD, and showed them the same types of images of accidents and assaults mentioned above.

The results were very interesting.

I feel your pain. and it makes me lash out

In some respects, the boys with CD responded like boys in the control group.

In particular, the mirror neuron system for pain was activated in both groups.

But there were dramatic differences.

First, the boys with conduct disorder experienced lessꂬtivation in brain regions associated with self-regulation, theory of mind, and moral reasoning.

Second, the boys with CD actually exhibited a stronger “mirror” response to accidentally-caused pain.

And, unlike controls, the boys with conduct disorder experienced strong, bilateral activation in the amygdala and striatum.

What does this mean? It’s not clear. The amygdala processes emotion. And the striatum is activated by strong stimuli—both pleasurable and aversive.

So there are at least two possibilities.

The aggressive boys might have gotten a pleasurable “kick” out of viewing the pain of others.

But given that their own pain centers were strongly activated, it’s also possible that observing second-hand pain triggered negative emotions—emotions that make the boys behave more aggressively.

As Decety and his colleagues point out, negative emotions—particularly in people with poor emotional control—can cause agitation and outbursts of aggression (Berkowitz 2003). This effect may be magnified in kids who have trouble distinguishing their own first-hand pain from the pain of others.

Decety and colleagues speculate that boys with conduct disorder may experience high levels of agitation or distress when they experience second-hand pain. When this distress is combined with poor self-regulation of emotion, they lash out.

But whether second-hand pain makes aggressive kids feel good or irritable, one thing seems pretty certain:

The brains of boys with conduct disorder responded more intensely to images of other people experiencing pain.

And this intensity was linked with the boys’ aggressive tendencies. The more strongly a boy’s brain responded to second-hand pain, the more highly he scored on measures of daring and sadism.

Can empathy be taught?

Animal studies and brain scan research might make us wonder if feeling empathy is a purely automatic process.

But, as noted above, empathy is really a package of abilities, and there is overwhelming evidence that empathy and empathic concern can be shaped by experience and culture.

On the negative side, experiments suggest that exposure to media violence can desensitize us, blunting the brain's response to second-hand pain (Guo et al 2013). It's also pretty clear that people downgrade the pain they perceive in victims when those victims are

  • strangers (Meyer et al 2013)
  • members of another race or outgroup (Xu et al 2009 Hein et al 2010)
  • or individuals marked by social stigma (Decety et al 2010).

That might sound bleak, but this same research suggests ways that we might enhance empathy. For instance, it seems likely that we can increase empathy for members of outgroups by reflecting on the similarities between us.

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

Pain of ostracism can be deep, long-lasting

Ostracism or exclusion may not leave external scars, but it can cause pain that often is deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury, according to a Purdue University expert.

"Being excluded or ostracized is an invisible form of bullying that doesn't leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact," said Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences. "Being excluded by high school friends, office colleagues, or even spouses or family members can be excruciating. And because ostracism is experienced in three stages, the life of those painful feelings can be extended for the long term. People and clinicians need to be aware of this so they can avoid depression or other negative experiences."

When a person is ostracized, the brain's dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain, also feels this social injury, Williams said. The process of ostracism includes three stages: the initial acts of being ignored or excluded, coping and resignation.

Williams' research is reported in the current issue of Current Directions in Psychological Sciences. The article was co-authored by Steve A. Nida, associate provost and dean of The Citadel Graduate College and a professor of psychology.

"Being excluded is painful because it threatens fundamental human needs, such as belonging and self-esteem," Williams said. "Again and again research has found that strong, harmful reactions are possible even when ostracized by a stranger or for a short amount of time."

More than 5,000 people have participated in studies using a computer game designed by Williams to show how just two or three minutes of ostracism can produce lingering negative feelings.

"How can it be that such a brief experience, even when being ignored and excluded by strangers with whom the individual will never have any face-to-face interaction, can have such a powerful effect?" he said. "The effect is consistent even though individuals' personalities vary."

People also vary in how they cope, which is the second stage of ostracism. Coping can mean the person tries to harder be included. For example, some of those who are ostracized may be more likely to engage in behaviors that increase their future inclusion by mimicking, complying, obeying orders, cooperating or expressing attraction.

"They will go to great lengths to enhance their sense of belonging and self-esteem," Williams said.

If they feel there is little hope for re-inclusion or that they have little control over their lives, they may resort to provocative behavior and even aggression.

"At some point, they stop worrying about being liked, and they just want to be noticed," Williams said.

However, if a person has been ostracized for a long time, they may not have the ability to continue coping as the pain lingers. Some people may give up, Williams said.

"The third stage is called resignation. This is when people who have been ostracized are less helpful and more aggressive to others in general," he said. "It also increases anger and sadness, and long-term ostracism can result in alienation, depression, helplessness and feelings of unworthiness."

Williams is trying to better understand how ostracized individuals may be attracted to extreme groups and what might be the reactions of ostracized groups.

"These groups provide members with a sense of belonging, self-worth and control, but they can fuel narrowness, radicalism and intolerance, and perhaps a propensity toward hostility and violence toward others," he said. "When a person feels ostracized they feel out of control, and aggressive behavior is one way to restore that control. When these individuals come together in a group there can be negative consequences."

Williams is a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences in Purdue's College of Health and Human Sciences.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Purdue University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Compassion a “concern for the wellbeing of others.” (Cosley, McCoy, & Saslow, 2010).

  • Cosley, B., McCoy, S., & Saslow, S. (2010). Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (5), 816-823.

Compassion “Is compassion a moral force? The answer, according to many spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, is a resounding yes. The experience of compassion, they assert, has a radiating effect, extending kindness and forgiveness toward others, even those who have intentionally transgressed.” (DeSteno, & Valdesolo, 2012)

  • DeSteno,D. & Valdesolo, P. (2012). The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us. Psychology Today.

Compassion “In the classical teachings of the Buddhist tradition compassion is defined as the heart that trembles in the face of suffering. At times, compassion is translated as the heart that can tremble in the face of suffering. It is aspired to as the noblest quality of the human heart, the motivation underlying all meditative paths of healing and liberation.

Compassion is a response to suffering, the inevitable adversity all human beings will meet in their lives, whether it is the pain embedded in the fabric of ageing, sickness and death or the psychological and emotional afflictions that debilitate the mind. Compassion is the acknowledgment that not all pain can be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ but all suffering is made more approachable in a landscape of compassion.

Compassion is a multi-textured response to pain, sorrow and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity and acceptance. The strands of courage, tolerance, equanimity are equally woven into the cloth of compassion. Above all compassion is the capacity to open to the reality of suffering and to aspire to its healing. The Dalai Lama once said, ‘If you want to know what compassion is, look into the eyes of a mother or father as they cradle their sick and fevered child'” (Feldman &Kuyken, 2011)

  • Feldman, C., & Kuyken, W. (2011). Compassion in the landscape of suffering. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 143-155. doi:10.1080/14639947.2011.564831.

Compassion “is the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help (for similar definitions, see Lazarus, 1991 Nussbaum, 1996, 2001 see Table 1). This definition conceptualizes compassion as an affective state defined by a specific subjective feeling, and it differs from treatments of compassion as an attitude (Blum, 1980 Sprecher & Fehr, 2005) or as a general benevolent response to others, regardless of suffering or blame (Post, 2002 Wispe´, 1986). This definition also clearly differentiates compassion from empathy, which refers to the vicarious experience of another’s emotions (Lazarus, 1991).” (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010).

Compassion “has been described as a path leading to greater awareness. For example, Feldman (2005) wrote:

One is to see compassion as the outcome of a path that can be cultivated and developed. You do not in reality cultivate compassion, but you can cultivate, through investigation, the qualities that incline your heart toward compassion. You can learn to attend to the moments when you close and contract in the face of suffering, anger, fear, or alienation. In those moments you are asked to question what difference empathy, forgiveness, patience, and tolerance would make. You cultivate your commitment to turn toward your responses of aversion, anger, or intolerance. With mindfulness and investigation, you find in your heart the generosity and understanding that allow you to open rather than close. (pp. 141-142)” (Hoffman, Grossman, & Hinton, 2011).

  • Hoffman, S., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, 31 (7), 1126-37.

Compassion is “…a multidimensional process comprised of four key components: (1) an awareness of suffering (cognitive/empathic awareness), 2) sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering (affective component), (3) a wish to see the relief of that suffering (intention), and (4) a responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering (motivational)”(Jazaieri, et al., 2012)

Compassion is a relational process that involves noticing another person’s pain, experiencing an emotional reaction to his or her pain, and acting in some way to help ease or alleviate the pain” (Kanov, Maitlis, Worline, Dutton, Frost & Lilius, 2004).

  • Kanov, J. M., Maitlis, S., Worline, M. C., Dutton, J. E., Frost, P. & Lilius, J. M. (2004). Compassion in organizational life. American Behavior Scientist, 47 (6), 808-827.

Compassionin organizations makes people feel seen and known it also helps them feel less alone (Frost et al. 2000 Kahn, 1993). Moreover, compassion alters the “felt connection” between people at work (Frost et al., 2000), and is associated with a range of positive attitudes, behaviors, and feelings in organizations (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius, & Kanov, 2002 Lilius et al., 2003). Research and writing on compassion in organizations reveals it as a positive and very powerful force.

We regard compassion in organizations as processual and relational. It is common to think of it as an individual characteristic, and a given individual as being either “compassionate” or “uncompassionate”. Compassion is also seen as a state induced by another person’s suffering, a “painful emotion” that one person experiences for another (Nussbaum, 1996). In contrast, we conceptualize compassion as a dynamic process, or a set of sub-processes, that may be found both in individuals and collectivities. Building on Clark (1997), we identify these sub-processes as “noticing”, “feeling”, and “responding”, each contributing uniquely to the process of compassion.” (Kanov, Maitlis, Worline, Dutton, Frost & Lilius, 2004).

  • Kanov, J. M., Maitlis, S., Worline, M. C., Dutton, J. E., Frost, P. & Lilius, J. M. (2004). Compassion in organizational life. American Behavior Scientist, 47 (6), 808-827.

Compassion comes into the English language by way of the Latin root “passio”, which means to suffer, paired with the Latin prefix “com”, meaning together – to suffer together. The concept of compassion and its link to suffering has deep philosophical and religious roots. For instance, Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas noted the interdependence of suffering and compassion when he wrote: “No one becomes compassionate unless he suffers” (cited in Barasch, 2005, p. 13). Ancient Chinese traditions acknowledge the interrelationship of suffering and human concern in the figure of Kwan Yin, often referred to as the goddess of compassion. Hindu imagery depicts compassion through a half-ape half-human deity, Hanuman, whose chest is cleaved open to reveal his heart to others undefended. Some Buddhist traditions induct individuals seeking to cultivate their compassion into the vow of the Boddhisattva, whose life is dedicated to being present with and relieving the suffering of all beings (Barasch, 2005 Chodron, 1997). A recurring theme is thus the relationship between one’s own suffering and self-oriented compassion, and compassion for others (Neff, 2003, 2009)” (Lilius, Kanov, Dutton, Worline, & Maitlis, 2011) .

  • Lilius, J., Kanov, J., Dutton, J., Worline, M., & Maitlis, S. (2011). Compassion revealed: What we know about compassion at work (and where we need to know more). Oxford University Press.

Compassion “is an empathetic emotional response to another person’s pain or suffering that moves people to act in a way that will either ease the person’s condition or make it more bearable (Kanov, Maitlis, Worline, Dutton, Frost, & Lilius, 2003). The action component of compassion distinguishes it from empathy (von Deitze & Orb, 2000), which is a passive, feeling state (Davis, 1994).” (Lilius, Worline, Dutton, Kanov, Frost, & Maitlis, 2003).

  • Lilius, J. M., Worline, M. C., Dutton, J. E., Kanov, J., Frost, P. J., & Maitlis, S. (2003). What good is compassion at work? National Academy of Management.

Compassion is a multi-dimensional process in which three elements of compassion form a tri-partite concept: noticing another person’s suffering,empathically feeling that person’s pain, and acting in a manner intended to ease the suffering (Dutton et al., 2006 Kanov et al., 2004 Miller, 2007). All of these elements are necessary, in this view, to understand compassion. Importantly, compassion goes beyond felt empathy to entail action, which is regarded as a compassionate response regardless of whether or not it successfully alleviates suffering (Kanov et al., 2004 Reich, 1989 Soygal Rinpoche, 1992).” (Lilius, Worline, Maitlis, Kanov, Dutton, & Frost, 2008).

  • Lilius, J., Worline, M., Maitlis, Kanov, J., Dutton, J., & Frost, P. (2008). The contours and consequences of compassion at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29, 193-218.

Compassion is conceptualized as one form of emotional work and is theoretically developed through a model that highlights the subprocesses of noticing, feeling, and responding.” (Miller, 2007).

  • Miller, K. (2007). Compassionate communication in the workplace: Exploring processes of noticing, connecting, and responding. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 35 (3), 223-245.

Compassion “Although there is no single definition of compassion that will suffice in all situations, both scholars and laypeople would widely agree that compassion involves “connection” to others (either cognitively through perspective taking or affectively through empathy) and “caring” for those others (often in communicative or behavioral ways). Compassion involves a focus on the other (Solomon, 1998) and a desire for the other to have good things happen or to overcome adversity.” (Miller, 2007).

  • Miller, K. (2007). Compassionate communication in the workplace: Exploring processes of noticing, connecting, and responding. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 35 (3), 223-245.

Compassion is often considered an important human strength, requiring a sense of caring, empathy, and sympathy, each of which enable one to connect with and care for another. Of notable relevance to mental health, compassion is not only a process that builds positive relationships with others it is also a vital path to releasing the human mind from the effects of harmful negative emotions (Wang 2005)” (Mongrain, Chin, &Shapira, 2010).

  • Mongrain, M., Chin, J. M., & Shapira, L. M. (2010). Practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12 (6), 963-981.

Compassion “In Western culture, compassion has mainly been understood in terms of concern for the suffering of others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010). As defined by Webster’s online dictionary, compassion is “the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.” In many Buddhist traditions, however, it is considered equally important to offer compassion to the self (Brach, 2003 Feldman, 2005 Salzberg, 2005). To give compassion to others but not the self, in fact, is seen drawing artificial distinctions between self and others that misrepresent our essential interconnectedness (Hahn, 1997). From this point of view self-compassion is simply compassion directed inward” (Neff &Pommier, 2012).

Compassion is one of the key values of humanities perspective, which addresses the nonphysical aspects of palliative care. The word “compassion” comes from Latin and means a willingness “to suffer with.” Compassion refers to a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. Many of the world’s major religions hold compassion as one of the highest spiritual virtues. Compassion is also one of the chief virtues in the Buddhist tradition. In Asian countries, where Buddhism is much more prevalent, compassion is deeply embedded in the culture”

Compassion has been understood in terms of concern for the suffering of others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010). With self-compassion, however, one is emotionally supportive toward both the self and others when hardship or human imperfection is confronted.” (Yarnell & Neff, 2012).

Second in an occasional series on how Harvard researchers are tackling the problematic issues of aging.

W hen scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression, they hoped the longitudinal study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives.

They got more than they wanted.

After following the surviving Crimson men for nearly 80 years as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, researchers have collected a cornucopia of data on their physical and mental health.

Of the original Harvard cohort recruited as part of the Grant Study, only 19 are still alive, all in their mid-90s. Among the original recruits were eventual President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. (Women weren’t in the original study because the College was still all male.)

In addition, scientists eventually expanded their research to include the men’s offspring, who now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s, to find out how early-life experiences affect health and aging over time. Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics, but not on inevitable tracks.

During the intervening decades, the control groups have expanded. In the 1970s, 456 Boston inner-city residents were enlisted as part of the Glueck Study, and 40 of them are still alive. More than a decade ago, researchers began including wives in the Grant and Glueck studies.

Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage, and the finding have produced startling lessons, and not only for the researchers.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

"The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Robert Waldinger with his wife Jennifer Stone.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.

The long-term research has received funding from private foundations, but has been financed largely by grants from the National Institutes of Health, first through the National Institute of Mental Health, and more recently through the National Institute on Aging.

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Researchers who have pored through data, including vast medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires, found a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends, and community. Several studies found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Waldinger in a popular TED Talk. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

TED talk / Robert Waldinger

He recorded his TED talk, titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” in 2015, and it has been viewed 13,000,000 times.

The researchers also found that marital satisfaction has a protective effect on people’s mental health. Part of a study found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain. Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.

Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, said Waldinger, and the loners often died earlier. “Loneliness kills,” he said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

According to the study, those who lived longer and enjoyed sound health avoided smoking and alcohol in excess. Researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they aged.

In part of a recent study, researchers found that women who felt securely attached to their partners were less depressed and more happy in their relationships two-and-a-half years later, and also had better memory functions than those with frequent marital conflicts.

“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies they protect our brains,” said Waldinger in his TED talk. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Since aging starts at birth, people should start taking care of themselves at every stage of life, the researchers say.

“Aging is a continuous process,” Waldinger said. “You can see how people can start to differ in their health trajectory in their 30s, so that by taking good care of yourself early in life you can set yourself on a better course for aging. The best advice I can give is ‘Take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years,’ because you might.”

The study, like its remaining original subjects, has had a long life, spanning four directors, whose tenures reflected their medical interests and views of the time.

Under the first director, Clark Heath, who stayed from 1938 until 1954, the study mirrored the era’s dominant view of genetics and biological determinism. Early researchers believed that physical constitution, intellectual ability, and personality traits determined adult development. They made detailed anthropometric measurements of skulls, brow bridges, and moles, wrote in-depth notes on the functioning of major organs, examined brain activity through electroencephalograms, and even analyzed the men’s handwriting.

Now, researchers draw men’s blood for DNA testing and put them into MRI scanners to examine organs and tissues in their bodies, procedures that would have sounded like science fiction back in 1938. In that sense, the study itself represents a history of the changes that life brings.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships, and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives.

In a book called “Aging Well,” Vaillant wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for the Harvard men: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. For the inner-city men, education was an additional factor. “The more education the inner city men obtained,” wrote Vaillant, “the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and use alcohol in moderation.”

Vaillant’s research highlighted the role of these protective factors in healthy aging. The more factors the subjects had in place, the better the odds they had for longer, happier lives.

“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

The study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife, now recognized as a good predictor of healthy aging. The research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities “set like plaster” by age 30 and cannot be changed.

“Those who were clearly train wrecks when they were in their 20s or 25s turned out to be wonderful octogenarians,” he said. “On the other hand, alcoholism and major depression could take people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.”

Professor Robert Waldinger is director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

The study’s fourth director, Waldinger has expanded research to the wives and children of the original men. That is the second-generation study, and Waldinger hopes to expand it into the third and fourth generations. “It will probably never be replicated,” he said of the lengthy research, adding that there is yet more to learn.

“We’re trying to see how people manage stress, whether their bodies are in a sort of chronic ‘fight or flight’ mode,” Waldinger said. “We want to find out how it is that a difficult childhood reaches across decades to break down the body in middle age and later.”

Lara Tang ’18, a human and evolutionary biology concentrator who recently joined the team as a research assistant, relishes the opportunity to help find some of those answers. She joined the effort after coming across Waldinger’s TED talk in one of her classes.

“That motivated me to do more research on adult development,” said Tang. “I want to see how childhood experiences affect developments of physical health, mental health, and happiness later in life.”

Asked what lessons he has learned from the study, Waldinger, who is a Zen priest, said he practices meditation daily and invests time and energy in his relationships, more than before.

“It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and not remembering, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen these friends in a long time,’ ” Waldinger said. “So I try to pay more attention to my relationships than I used to.”

Kindness is chemical

Most research on the science behind why kindness makes us feel better has centered around oxytocin.

Sometimes called "the love hormone," oxytocin plays a role in forming social bonds and trusting other people. It's the hormone mothers produce when they breastfeed, cementing their bond with their babies.

Oxytocin is also released when we're physically intimate. It's tied to making us more trusting, more generous, and friendlier, while also lowering our blood pressure.

Acts of kindness can also give our love hormone levels a boost, research suggests.

Dr. IsHak says studies have also linked random acts of kindness to releasing dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that can give us a feeling of euphoria. This feel-good brain chemical is credited with causing what's known as a "helper's high."

In addition to boosting oxytocin and dopamine, being kind can also increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.

5 Painful Facts You Need to Know

First off, let's set the record straight: Pain is normal. About 75 million U.S. residents endure chronic or recurrent pain. Migraines plague 25 million of us. One in six suffer arthritis.

The global pain industry peddles more than $50 billion in drugs a year. Yet for chronic pain sufferers, over-the-counter pills are typically little help, while morphine and other narcotics can be addictive sedatives.

An overview study published last month in the Journal of General Internal Medicine looked at multiple studies of pain and found "researchers don't yet know how to determine which [treatment] is best for individual patients." From studies of drugs to surgeries and alternative medicines, "We have found that there are huge gaps in our knowledge base," said Dr. Matthew J. Bair, assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

So what is pain and why do so many suffer so long?

Pain is felt when electrical signals are sent from nerve endings to your brain, which in turn can release painkillers called endorphins and generate reactions that range from instant and physical to long-term and emotional. Beyond that, scientific understanding gets painfully fuzzy. Here's what's known:

1. Scientist don't understand pain

When you're in pain, you know it. But if scientists could fully grasp how pain works and why, they might be able to help you more. The American Academy of Pain Medicine defines pain as "an unpleasant sensation and emotional response to that sensation." Some pain is the result of an obvious injury. Other times, it is caused by damaged nerves that are not so easy to pinpoint. "Pain is complex and defies our ability to establish a clear definition," says Kathryn Weiner, director of the American Academy of Pain Management. "Pain is far more than neural transmission and sensory transduction. Pain is a complex mixture of emotions, culture, experience, spirit and sensation."

2. Chronic pain shrinks brains

If you have chronic pain, you know how demoralizing and debilitating it can be, physically and mentally. It can prevent you from doing things and make you irritable for reasons nobody else understands. But that's only half the story. People with chronic backaches have brains as much as 11 percent smaller than those of non-sufferers, scientists reported in 2004. They don't know why. "It is possible it's just the stress of having to live with the condition," said study leader A. Vania Apkarian of Northwestern University. "The neurons become overactive or tired of the activity."

3. Migraines and sex go together

It may not eliminate the phrase "Not tonight, honey . " but a 2006 study found that migraine sufferers had levels of sexual desire 20 percent higher than those suffering from tension headaches. The finding suggests sexual desire and migraines might be influenced by the same brain chemical, and getting a better handle on the link could lead to better treatments, at least for the pain portion of the equation.

4. Women feel more pain

Any man who has watched a woman having a baby without using drugs would swear that women can tolerate anything. But the truth is, guys, it hurts more than you can imagine. Women have more nerve receptors than men. As an example, women have 34 nerve fibers per square centimeter of facial skin, while men average just 17. And in a 2005 study, women were found to report more pain throughout their lifetimes and, compared to men, they feel pain in more areas of their body and for longer durations.

5. Some animals don't feel our pain

Animal research could offer clues to eventually relieve human suffering. Take the naked mole rat, a hairless and nearly blind subterranean creature. A study this year found it feels neither the pain of acid nor the sting of chili peppers. If researchers can figure out why, they might be on the road to new sorts of painkilling therapies for humans. In 2006, scientists found a pathway for the transmission of chronic pain in rats that they hope will translate into better understanding of human chronic pain. Lobsters feel no pain, even when boiled, scientists said in a 2005 report that is just one more salvo in a long-running debate.

What you can do

Meanwhile, exercise is a useful remedy for many types of chronic pain.

In an Italian study detailed in the May issue of the journal Cephalalgia, office workers did relaxation and posture exercises every two to three hours. Over an eight-month period, they kept diaries, which were then compared to those of a control group that did not change habits. In the end, the group that exercised reported that headaches and neck and shoulder pain decreased by more than 40 per cent, and their use of painkillers was cut in half.

"Physical activity is actually a natural pain reliever for most people suffering from arthritis," concludes another study published in the Arthritis Care and Research journal in April. "Even minor lifestyle changes like taking a 10-minute walk three times a day can reduce the impact of arthritis on a person's daily activities and help to prevent developing more painful arthritis," said Dr. Patience White, chief public health officer of the Arthritis Foundation. "Physical activity can actually reduce pain naturally and decrease dependence on pain medications."

MRI Shows People Feel Pain Differently

June 23, 2003 -- Back pain, foot pain, head pain -- the human body is no stranger to pain. But brain scans show not everyone feels pain the same way, a new study shows.

The study, which could lead to better pain management, appears in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

"We have all met people who seem very sensitive to pain as well as those who appear to tolerate pain very well," says lead researcher Robert C. Coghill, PhD, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in a news release.

Patients are asked to rate their pain -- on a one to 10 scale -- so doctors can prescribe medications for pain management. "Until now, there was no objective evidence that could confirm that these individual differences in pain sensitivity are, in fact, real," he says.

The most difficult aspect of treating pain has been having confidence in patients' reports of pain, says Coghill. These findings confirm that the level of pain intensity can be seen in brain activity.


The study itself included 17 healthy men and women who agreed to have a computer-controlled heat stimulator placed on a leg. While researchers watched each patient's brain activity -- via what's known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) -- the device heated a small patch of their skin to a temperature most people find painful.

The volunteers reported very different experiences of pain, reports Coghill. The least-sensitive person rated the pain around "one" while the most-sensitive person rated it as a "nine."

Their brains reflected the differences, he explains. Those who gave a higher pain number had greater activation in the "pain" brain area those with the least sensitivity had less brain activity.

The pain "experience" is likely due to a combination of factors, like the person's past experience with pain, his or her emotional state when experiencing the pain, and the person's expectations regarding pain, he adds.

In prescribing medications for pain management, doctors can trust what their patients are saying about the intensity of their pain, he says.

Why Do Some People Tolerate Pain Better Than Others? New Study Links Pain Sensitivity With Grey Matter In Brain

The next time someone calls you a wimp, tell them it’s your brain’s fault. There’s a reason some people are more sensitive to physical pain than others, and the reason involves differences in the structure of the brain itself.

According to new research from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., variances in pain sensitivity are related to the amount of grey matter – a major component of the central nervous system that contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies – in a person’s brain.

The study, published in the journal Pain, measured pain tolerance in 116 “healthy volunteers” by subjecting them to a minor pain stimulus. Researchers asked volunteers to rate the intensity of pain they experienced when a patch of skin on a subject’s arm or leg was heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature most people find painful, while scientists took MRI scans of their brains.

“Subjects with higher pain intensity ratings had less grey matter in brain regions that contribute to internal thoughts and control of attention,” Nichole Emerson, a graduate student in the Coghill lab and first author of the study, said in a statement.

The brain regions researchers noted as having less grey matter were the posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus and areas of the posterior parietal cortex. The posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus are related to the region of the brain associated with the free-flowing thoughts people have while daydreaming. Researchers say, based on their findings, brain structure could prove useful in determining a person’s sensitivity to pain.

“These kinds of structural differences can provide a foundation for the development of better tools for the diagnosis, classification, treatment and even prevention of pain,” Robert Coghill, professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and senior author of the study, said in a statement.

Coghill’s previous work with the human brain and its relation to pain sensitivity has provided clues about why different people feel different levels of pain. A 2003 study Coghill was involved in suggested people who report higher levels of pain showed increased activity in areas of the brain related to pain. These regions included the primary somatosensory cortex, which helps the brain determine where a painful stimulus is coming from on the body, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which assists the brain in processing the unpleasant feelings brought on by pain.

"One of the most difficult aspects of treating pain has been having confidence in the accuracy of patients' self-reports of pain," said Coghill. "These findings confirm that self-reports of pain intensity are highly correlated to brain activation and that self-reports should guide treatment of pain.”

The 2003 study, however, was done with only a small sample of just 17 people. Also, researchers noted that individual differences in pain sensitivity are at least partly due to a combination of other cognitive factors, such as a person’s emotional state at the time pain is experience, past experiences with pain and expectations about pain.

“Consequently, the development of a more reliable, detailed, and descriptive scale would seem to be in order,” io9 noted in a 2012 article on why we experience physical pain. “But given the highly complex and subjective nature of pain, this may never happen.”

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5 The vast majority of U.S. atheists say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives (93%) and that they seldom or never pray (97%). At the same time, many do not see a contradiction between atheism and pondering their place in the world. About a third of American atheists say they think about the meaning and purpose of life at least weekly (35%), and that they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being (31%). In fact, the Religious Landscape Study shows that atheists are more likely than U.S. Christians to say they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe (54% vs. 45%).

6 Where do atheists find meaning in life? Like a majority of Americans, most atheists mentioned “family” as a source of meaning when Pew Research Center asked an open-ended question about this in a 2017 survey. But atheists were far more likely than Christians to describe hobbies as meaningful or satisfying (26% vs. 10%). Atheists also were more likely than Americans overall to describe finances and money, creative pursuits, travel, and leisure activities as meaningful. Not surprisingly, very few U.S. atheists (4%) said they found life’s meaning in spirituality.

7 In many cases, being an atheist isn’t just about personally rejecting religious labels and beliefs – most atheists also express negative views when asked about the role of religion in society. For example, seven-in-ten U.S. atheists say religion’s influence is declining in American public life, and that this is a good thing (71%), according to a 2019 survey. Fewer than one-in-five U.S. adults overall (17%) share this view. A majority of atheists (70%) also say churches and other religious organizations do more harm than good in society, and an even larger share (93%) say religious institutions have too much influence in U.S. politics.

8 Atheists may not believe religious teachings, but they are quite informed about religion. In Pew Research Center’s 2019 religious knowledge survey, atheists were among the best-performing groups, answering an average of about 18 out of 32 fact-based questions correctly, while U.S. adults overall got an average of roughly 14 questions right. Atheists were at least as knowledgeable as Christians on Christianity-related questions – roughly eight-in-ten in both groups, for example, know that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus – and they were also twice as likely as Americans overall to know that the U.S. Constitution says “no religious test” shall be necessary to hold public office.

9 Most Americans (56%) say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral, while 42% say belief in God is necessary to have good values, according to a 2017 survey. In other wealthy countries, smaller shares tend to say that belief in God is essential for good morals, including just 15% in France. But in many other parts of the world, nearly everyone says that a person must believe in God to be moral, including 99% in Indonesia and Ghana and 98% in Pakistan, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center international survey.

10 Americans feel less warmly toward atheists than they do toward members of most major religious groups. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey asked Americans to rate groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 (as cold and negative as possible) to 100 (the warmest, most positive possible rating). U.S. adults gave atheists an average rating of 49, identical to the rating they gave Muslims (49) and colder than the average given to Jews (63), Catholics (60) and evangelical Christians (56).

Note: This is an update of a post originally published on Nov. 5, 2015.