Part of the show Brainwashing and the Science of Pain
Paul in Hertfordshire asked:
Why is it if you see somebody get punched in the nose, you go ouch?
Because it's very important for us to empathise with other people's pain and suffering. It's part of human nature. A very nice experiment was done by Tania Singer just a couple of years ago using imaging. Basically they put women in the scanner and they looked at their brains as they were given a painful stimulus. They then put the women's partners at the end of the scanner and they burnt their partners, but they imaged the women's brains as they watched their partners being burnt. The interesting thing they found in that study was that the areas of the brain that were active when they looked at their partners were pretty much the same areas as those areas active in response to that woman having pain in the first instance. So you basically activate a very similar set of structures, which means you really are having a painful experience yourself watching somebody else. They were very cunning because they actually put women in because they thought that they would empathise better so the control experiment would be to put men in the scanner and see what happens.