Feel the pain of others as your own

KNOW YOURSELF


Lisa paces the hospital lobby and cannot stop. Behind the wall, her daughter is undergoing her third chemotherapy session. Liza imagines how chilling – and nevertheless necessary for treatment – poison once again spreads through Natasha’s veins. She thinks that she feels nausea, which comes up to her daughter’s throat, and painful cramps in her stomach. Lisa tells herself that she would give everything for the opportunity to be there – instead of Natasha.

Alexander cannot tear himself away from the TV screen: one hundred thousand refugees cannot find salvation from the war. They have been walking in the desert for many days, often without food or water. A father with an unseeing gaze carries a dead child in his arms. The camera pauses on his unwound turban, on his arms, vainly clutching the boy to his chest.

Alexander gets up from the chair. He is a doctor. He cannot calm down in any way. He has to do something, he wants to be there with these people. In a few days he is already in Africa, in the group of “Doctors Without Borders”

When we suffer, the body is mobilized to withstand. This is a well-known reaction: fight or flight! But where does it feel like we are experiencing another person’s pain? Where does this powerful impulse come from – to alleviate the suffering of another, as if it were us who were hurting right now?

At University College London, several women participating in the experiment were asked to undergo magnetic resonance imaging of the brain while their husbands were exposed to an electric current.1… They were warned a few seconds before the electric shock. In addition, each of them could see in the mirror how her husband’s hand was clenched. The faces of all the women reflected the pain caused by the sight of the suffering of a loved one.

First of all, a group of researchers led by Tanya Singer was interested in what was happening in the brain of these women. Scanning showed that they activated the same zones of emotional reactions as in people who are actually exposed to electric shock.

The other person’s pain became their own. Their brains took over this pain. These women, connected with their husbands by love, seemed to have pierced the membrane separating “I” from “you”.

A connection is recorded in our brain that connects us with the joys and torments of others, with the world around us.

The Yanomami Indians, to convey the state of love, say: “Ya pihi irakema”, which means: “I am infected with you.” In other words, “something from you has entered me and lives in me.” I am no longer just me, because your feelings have now become mine.

According to the American philosopher Susan Langer, under the influence of love, the shell of individual being becomes permeable.2… Of course, not all people are equally capable of experiencing this kind of empathy. Women are generally superior to men in this respect. This natural brain response underlies our ability to connect with other people, which is the essence of the human in us.

Mammals differ from other animals not only in that they feed on mother’s milk, but also in the presence of zones in the brain that provide an affective connection between children and their parents, especially with the mother.

The anterior part of the cingulate cortex – this is exactly the area that was activated in women in the experiment described above – developed precisely so that the baby’s screams were completely unbearable for the mother and made it impossible for them to part. This mechanism provides the constant adult contact necessary for the growth and development of vulnerable young mammals.

In addition to affection for loved ones, the ability to be compassionate – that is, suffering with others – underlies the calling of the doctor, encourages volunteers to help those in need and explains everyone’s desire to see society more harmonious.

A connection is recorded in our brain structures that connects us with the torments and joys of other people, with the world around us. This connection makes us human – isolated and connected with each other. Feeling and therefore responsible.

1 T. Singer, B. Seymour. “Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective But Not Sensory Components of Pain”. Science, No. 303, 2004.

2 S. Langer. “Mind: an Essay on Human Feelings”. John Hopkins Press, 1988.

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