Merely witnessing the pain of another person can trigger the same pain in an observer. Dr Melita Giummarra presented her findings to the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists’ annual scientific meeting this week in Melbourne.
About one in three people suffer from “somatic contagion” where a person feels pain when they see someone experience it. There are two groups: those who are born with it, known as the congenital variant, and those who acquire it after a trauma, such as amputation.
The former blurs between the self and others, with heightened empathy to those in pain, while those who acquire somatic contagion have reduced empathy and an increased perception of personal pain. A new tool, the Empathy for Pain Scale, charts the reactions of people to pain in others, including those with somatic contagion.