Sensorimotor Alpha Activity is Modulated in Response to the Observation of Pain in Others
We explored how apparently painful stimuli and the ability to identify with the person on whom the pain is inflicted modulate EEG suppression in the mu/alpha range (8-12 Hz). In a 2 × 2 design, we presented pictures of hands either experiencing needle pricks or being touched by a Q-tip. In the dissimilar-other condition, the hand was assigned to a patient suffering from a neurological disease in which Q-tips inflicted pain, whereas needle pricks did not. In the similar-other condition, the hand was assigned to a patient who responded to stimulation in the same way as the healthy participant. Participants were instructed to imagine the feeling of the person whose hand was shown and to evaluate his or her affective state. Pain conditions elicited greater EEG suppression than did nonpain conditions, particularly over frontocentral regions. Moreover, an interaction between pain and similarity revealed that for similar others, the pain effect was significant, whereas in the dissimilar-other group, suppression was equally large in the pain and no-pain conditions. We conclude that mu/alpha suppression is elicited both automatically, by observing a situation that is potentially painful for the observer, and by empathy for pain, even if the other person is different from oneself.