What if your doctor’s brain felt your pain – from being pricked with a needle all the way to surgery?
It might be tough for them to get anything done, huh?
Jean Decety, PhD, and his colleagues from the University of Chicago wanted to see whether physicians empathized with pain differently from the general population. They had a hunch that physicians’ brains would be better at regulating their emotional responses to pain, allowing them to stay focused on treatment.
Current models suggest that empathy to pain involves two stages: an automatic, emotional sharing component, followed by a cognitive evaluation. Decety and his team suspected that physicians would be better at modulating the emotional component.
To find out, they gathered 30 participants: 15 physicians and 15 people with no medical experience, who were matched to the physicians in age and level of education.
Next, they showed each subject 120 pictures of different body parts. In half the pictures, the body parts were touched by a Q-tip, and in the other half the body parts were touched with a needle.
While the participants were viewing the pictures, their brain activity was measured using EEG. Following the EEG, subjects were asked to rate the amount of pain intensity and unpleasantness they thought the models in the photographs experienced.
The researchers’ hunch proved true.
After viewing the images, control participants reported significantly higher projections of pain intensity and unpleasantness than the physicians did.
Also, the physicians’ EEG results showed less activation than the control in the regions of the brain responsible for empathy to pain.
This study suggests that physicians, whether due to their training or their professional experience, can regulate their emotions better than lay people when it comes to seeing people in physical pain. And better emotional regulation could reduce fear and alarm responses, and thus make problem solving easier.
This research has an important limitation: it uses a matched control, rather than true random assignment into control and treatment. Maybe the brains of people who become doctors simply are made of sterner stuff (though I doubt it).
Of course, you can’t randomly assign physician status, so it’s difficult to avoid this problem.
While most of our patients aren’t physicians, this study has serious implications for practice. If a few years of training can change the way our brains react to the pain of others, perhaps we can also change how our brains react to our own pain.
Imagine how helping patients regulate their fear responses could improve healing.
In fact, brain science has thousands of potential applications. To find out how you can use the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience to help clients heal, take a look at this.
If you’d like to read the full study, it was published in Vol. 50 of NeuroImage.
Have you ever helped a client with their brain’s emotional regulation? Please share your experience in the comments below.