Some research is just too cool; here’s a now classic study worth sharing.
For a long time scientists have been curious about the link between empathy and pain. In particular, people use so-called “mirror neurons” to help interpret what others are experiencing, to help remember their own experiences, and to help predict or imagine the past or future. So for instance, if you watch a person running on TV, neurons in the areas in your brain that control the motor-movement needed for running will “fire” as if you actually were yourself running.
When it comes to empathy, in a paper published in Science in 2004, researchers took 16 romantic couples and studied their brains using fMRI scans. First, while being scanned, they gave people a hurtful but very temporary electric shock (like getting a bee sting, but the hurt goes away immediately). Then they informed participants on a screen within the scanner when the next shock would come and how powerful it would be. They were particularly interested to see how certain areas of the brain representing the emotional experience of pain “lit up” in anticipation of the pain. Later and most interestingly, the romantic partners were also given the same electric shock. As it turns out, the same areas of the brain “light up” in the fMRI scan when anticipating your own pain as when knowing that your partner is experiencing pain. From this, scientists concluded that we use our own subjective feeling states to interpret the feelings of our partner and much interesting work has followed!