Our empathetic abilities allow us to feel the pain of others. This phenomenon of vicarious feeling arises because the neural circuitry of feeling pain and seeing pain in others is shared. The neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) is considered a robust facilitator of empathy, as intranasal OXT studies have repeatedly been shown to improve cognitive empathy (e.g. mind reading and emotion recognition). However, OXT has not yet been shown to increase neural empathic responses to pain in others, a core aspect of affective empathy. Effects of OXT on empathy for pain are difficult to predict, because OXT evidently has pain-reducing properties. Accordingly, OXT might paradoxically decrease empathy for pain. Here, using functional neuroimaging we show robust activation in the neural circuitry of pain (insula and sensorimotor regions) when subjects observe pain in others. Crucially, this empathy-related activation in the neural circuitry of pain is strongly reduced after intranasal OXT, specifically in the left insula. OXT on the basis of our neuroimaging data thus remarkably decreases empathy for pain, but further research including behavioral measures is necessary to draw definite conclusions.
Bos, P. A., Montoya, E. R., Hermans, E. J., Keysers, C., & van Honk, J. (2015). Oxytocin reduces neural activity in the pain circuitry when seeing pain in others. NeuroImage, 113, 217–224. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.03.049