Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 22 October 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00772

Witnessing hateful people in pain modulates brain activity in regions associated with physical pain and reward

  • 1Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
  • 2Brain and Creativity Institute, Los Angeles, CA, USA
  • 3Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Los Angeles, CA, USA

How does witnessing a hateful person in pain compare to witnessing a likable person in pain?The current study compared the brain bases for how we perceive likable people in pain with those of viewing hateful people in pain. While social bonds are built through sharing the plight and pain of others in the name of empathy, viewing a hateful person in pain also has many potential ramifications. In this functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study, Caucasian Jewish male participants viewed videos of (1) disliked, hateful, anti-Semitic individuals, and (2) liked, non-hateful, tolerant individuals in pain. The results showed that, compared with viewing liked people, viewing hateful people in pain elicited increased responses in regions associated with observation of physical pain (the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the somatosensory cortex), reward processing (the striatum), and frontal regions associated with emotion regulation. Functional connectivity analyses revealed connections between seed regions in the left ACC and right insular cortex with reward regions, the amygdala, and frontal regions associated with emotion regulation. These data indicate that regions of the brain active while viewing someone in pain may be more active in response to the danger or threat posed by witnessing the pain of a hateful individual more so than the desire to empathize with a likable person's pain.

Keywords: empathy, observation of pain, social group membership, fMRI, pain matrix

Citation: Fox GR, Sobhani M and Aziz-Zadeh L (2013) Witnessing hateful people in pain modulates brain activity in regions associated with physical pain and reward. Front. Psychol. 4:772. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00772

Received: 03 July 2013; Accepted: 01 October 2013;
Published online: 23 October 2013.

Edited by:

Serge Thill, University of Skövde, Sweden

Reviewed by:

Robert Lowe, University of Skövde, Sweden
Mog Stapleton, University of Stuttgart, UK

Copyright © 2013 Fox, Sobhani and Aziz-Zadeh. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Glenn R. Fox, Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, 3620A McClintock Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA e-mail: glennfox@usc.edu

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