Article abstract

Nature Neuroscience 8, 955 - 960 (2005)
Published online: 5 June 2005 | doi:10.1038/nn1481

Transcranial magnetic stimulation highlights the sensorimotor side of empathy for pain

Alessio Avenanti1,2, Domenica Bueti1,2, Gaspare Galati2,3 & Salvatore M Aglioti1,2

Pain is intimately linked with action systems that are involved in observational learning and imitation. Motor responses to one's own pain allow freezing or escape reactions and ultimately survival. Here we show that similar motor responses occur as a result of observation of painful events in others. We used transcranial magnetic stimulation to record changes in corticospinal motor representations of hand muscles of individuals observing needles penetrating hands or feet of a human model or noncorporeal objects. We found a reduction in amplitude of motor-evoked potentials that was specific to the muscle that subjects observed being pricked. This inhibition correlated with the observer's subjective rating of the sensory qualities of the pain attributed to the model and with sensory, but not emotional, state or trait empathy measures. The empathic inference about the sensory qualities of others' pain and their automatic embodiment in the observer's motor system may be crucial for the social learning of reactions to pain.

  1. Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università degli studi di Roma La Sapienza, Via dei Marsi 78, 00185 Rome, Italy.
  2. Centro Ricerche Neuropsicologia, IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia, Via Ardeatina 306, 00179 Rome, Italy.
  3. Dipartimento di Scienze Cliniche e delle Bioimmagini, Università G. D'Annunzio, Via dei Vestini 31, 66010 Chieti, Italy.

Correspondence to: Salvatore M Aglioti1,2 e-mail:


These links to content published by NPG are automatically generated.


The painful side of empathy

Nature Neuroscience News and Views (01 Jul 2005)