Research Topic

Psychological and Neural Mechanisms of Pain and Empathy

About this Research Topic

Pain is a multidimensional experience characterized by sensory, emotional, cognitive and social components. Likewise, empathy is a multidimensional psychological function with cognitive and affective features. Crucially, they both have significant implications for our social functioning, healthcare, and wellbeing. For example, empathy for pain is paramount in healthcare providers when it comes to assess and manage the patient’s pain symptoms. From an evolutionary standpoint, scientists gathered evidence endorsing empathy in other species too. Comparative research and animal models are just starting unrevealing sub-functions and components of empathy in our fellow mammals. Both the study of pain and empathy can benefit from an interdisciplinary approach linking behavioral, psychological, and neuroscientific methodologies that would offer a unified model of pain and empathy in mammals. This approach may not only provide a better theoretical understanding of these phenomena but also promote the development of novel clinical applications and lead to significant improvement in policy-making.

A specific goal of this Research Topic is to gather theoretical and empirical contributions able to advance our understanding of the psychological and neural mechanisms behind the interaction between pain and empathy. In humans, a great deal of research showed that empathy for pain recruits neural processes that are similarly recruited by the first-hand experience of pain, thus motivating scholars to interpret these findings as reflecting shared representation or “affective resonance”. However, it is not clear yet if these shared activations are more simply explained by general unspecific activities associated with the representation of salient and relevant sensory events, as well as the representation of negative valence emotion and threatening meaning in the brain. Although neurobiological and psychological determinants of pain and empathy are increasingly untangled, there is still substantial debate on the neural and psychological mechanisms accounting for these phenomena and their interaction. The shared representation account provides a fascinating and intuitive explanation for the mechanisms of empathy for pain as it implies that the same affective state is “mirrored” in different organisms. And yet, there is still substantial disagreement on whether a mirror-like mechanism is necessary and sufficient for empathy to take place.

As a more general goal, this Research Topic aims to bring together studies addressing the psychological and neural processing linked to the i) emotional, cognitive and social modulations on pain and the ii) multifaceted nature of empathy-related processes. Therefore, the Research Topic will offer a platform for original contributions spanning from experimental to clinical research and showcasing different methodologies, such as behavioral and neuroimaging techniques in both animals and humans. We will particularly welcome original empirical and clinical research but also theoretical and opinion papers, as well as papers proposing novel methods and perspectives that can boost investigation in the study of pain, empathy and their interaction.

The Research Topic will welcome manuscripts falling in the following categories:
• Original research
• Methods
• Clinical case studies and reports
• Reviews and mini-reviews
• Hypothesis and theory
• Perspective
• General commentary
• Opinion
• Systematic review
• Meta-analysis
• Clinical trial


Keywords: Pain, Empathy, Neural processing, Animal model, Humans


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Pain is a multidimensional experience characterized by sensory, emotional, cognitive and social components. Likewise, empathy is a multidimensional psychological function with cognitive and affective features. Crucially, they both have significant implications for our social functioning, healthcare, and wellbeing. For example, empathy for pain is paramount in healthcare providers when it comes to assess and manage the patient’s pain symptoms. From an evolutionary standpoint, scientists gathered evidence endorsing empathy in other species too. Comparative research and animal models are just starting unrevealing sub-functions and components of empathy in our fellow mammals. Both the study of pain and empathy can benefit from an interdisciplinary approach linking behavioral, psychological, and neuroscientific methodologies that would offer a unified model of pain and empathy in mammals. This approach may not only provide a better theoretical understanding of these phenomena but also promote the development of novel clinical applications and lead to significant improvement in policy-making.

A specific goal of this Research Topic is to gather theoretical and empirical contributions able to advance our understanding of the psychological and neural mechanisms behind the interaction between pain and empathy. In humans, a great deal of research showed that empathy for pain recruits neural processes that are similarly recruited by the first-hand experience of pain, thus motivating scholars to interpret these findings as reflecting shared representation or “affective resonance”. However, it is not clear yet if these shared activations are more simply explained by general unspecific activities associated with the representation of salient and relevant sensory events, as well as the representation of negative valence emotion and threatening meaning in the brain. Although neurobiological and psychological determinants of pain and empathy are increasingly untangled, there is still substantial debate on the neural and psychological mechanisms accounting for these phenomena and their interaction. The shared representation account provides a fascinating and intuitive explanation for the mechanisms of empathy for pain as it implies that the same affective state is “mirrored” in different organisms. And yet, there is still substantial disagreement on whether a mirror-like mechanism is necessary and sufficient for empathy to take place.

As a more general goal, this Research Topic aims to bring together studies addressing the psychological and neural processing linked to the i) emotional, cognitive and social modulations on pain and the ii) multifaceted nature of empathy-related processes. Therefore, the Research Topic will offer a platform for original contributions spanning from experimental to clinical research and showcasing different methodologies, such as behavioral and neuroimaging techniques in both animals and humans. We will particularly welcome original empirical and clinical research but also theoretical and opinion papers, as well as papers proposing novel methods and perspectives that can boost investigation in the study of pain, empathy and their interaction.

The Research Topic will welcome manuscripts falling in the following categories:
• Original research
• Methods
• Clinical case studies and reports
• Reviews and mini-reviews
• Hypothesis and theory
• Perspective
• General commentary
• Opinion
• Systematic review
• Meta-analysis
• Clinical trial


Keywords: Pain, Empathy, Neural processing, Animal model, Humans


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

09 January 2018 Abstract
01 May 2018 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

09 January 2018 Abstract
01 May 2018 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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