1. New insights into how employees manage stressful situations at work

    February 20, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of East Anglia press release:

    Researchers have developed a new tool which could benefit organisations and their staff by assessing employees’ beliefs about how they manage challenging and stressful situations at work.

    Self-efficacy — the belief in one’s capabilities to achieve a goal or an outcome — is a key variable for understanding how people manage themselves and their behaviour at work, given its influence on motivation, well-being, and personal achievement and fulfilment.

    Employees must not only accomplish tasks but also manage their negative emotions as well as interpersonal relationships. Despite this, self-efficacy has mainly been assessed in relation to job tasks, not emotions and interpersonal aspects.

    This research aimed to fill the gap by developing and testing a new work self-efficacy scale to assess individuals’ perceived ability not only in managing tasks, but also negative emotions, being empathic and being assertive. It involved academics at the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Norwich Business School, the Department of Psychology at Sapienza University of Rome, Uninettuno Telematic International University, and the Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science at Coventry University.

    Results from two studies, involving a total of 2892 Italian employees, provide evidence of the added value of a more comprehensive approach to the assessment of self-efficacy at work. They also suggest the new scale has practical implications for management and staff, for example in recruitment and appraisal processes, as well career development and training.

    The findings, published in Journal of Vocational Behavior, show that:

    • The more employees perceive themselves as able to manage their tasks and effectively fulfil their goals (task self-efficacy), the better they perform and the less they are likely to misbehave at work;
    • The more employees perceive themselves as able to manage their negative emotions in stressful and conflict situations (negative emotional self-efficacy), the less they report physical symptoms and the less they experience negative emotions in relation to their job;
    • The more employees perceive themselves as able to understand their colleagues’ moods and states (empathic self-efficacy), the more they are likely to go the extra mile in their working lives and help their colleagues.

    Co-author Dr Roberta Fida, lecturer in organisational behaviour at Norwich Business School, said: “Our results also showed that the more employees perceive themselves as capable of speaking up for their rights and ideas, what we call assertive self-efficacy, the more they seem to engage in counterproductive work behaviour targeting the organisation as a whole. This seems to suggest that assertive self-efficacy should be considered as a risk factor.

    “However, further analyses showed that reducing individuals to separate elements may obscure their complexity. Indeed, the results of this research showed the importance of considering the relationship between the different self-efficacy beliefs and how they combine with each other. This helps us to understand how individuals organise their capabilities to fulfil their goals and manage themselves in challenging and demanding situations.”

    In particular, the findings showed that when employees have high assertive self-efficacy along with high task, negative emotional and empathic self-efficacy, they actually did not show higher counterproductive work behaviour. On the contrary, they are those helping and going the extra-mile as well as those showing high well-being. The opposite is instead true for those employees with high empathic self-efficacy but low task, negative emotional and assertive self-efficacy.

    Results also showed that when employees have high task self-efficacy but they do not perceive themselves as able to manage negative emotions in stressful and conflictual situations, understand others’ needs and mood, or speak up for their rights and ideas, they undoubtedly perform well in their job but they ‘pay the price’ in terms of well-being.

    Dr Fida said: “By using the scale, management and Human Resources may gain an all-round understanding of their employees over the course of their career, and may assess and monitor individuals’ beliefs in relation to different self-regulatory capabilities.

    “For example, in the recruitment process, it may provide relevant information to understand how potential employees may adjust to the work environment. It can also be used in the appraisal system as a self-reflective tool.

    “In addition, it can provide relevant information for career development, and for training and vocational counselling. It may inform the design of tailored interventions aimed at promoting employees’ self-regulatory competences in ‘less trained’ self-regulatory capabilities.”


  2. Study suggests arts and humanities in medical school promote empathy and inoculate against burnout

    February 18, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Tulane University press release:

    Medical students who spend more time engaging in the arts may also be bolstering the qualities that improve their bedside manner with patients, according to new research from Tulane and Thomas Jefferson universities.

    The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, finds that students who devoted more time to the humanities during medical school had significantly higher levels of positive physician attributes like empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, wisdom and emotional intelligence while at the same time reporting lower levels of adverse traits like burnout.

    “The humanities have often been pushed to the side in medical school curricula, but our data suggests that exposure to the arts are linked to important personal qualities for future physicians,” said senior author Marc Kahn, MD, MBA, MACP, the Peterman-Prosser Professor and Senior Associate Dean in the Tulane University School of Medicine. “This is the first study to show this type of correlation.”

    Through an online survey, the team measured exposure to the humanities (music, literature, theater and visual arts), positive personal qualities (wisdom, empathy, self-efficacy, tolerance for ambiguity and emotional appraisal) and negative qualities associated with well-being (physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and cognitive weariness) in 739 medical students at five medical schools across the country.

    Those who reported more interactions with the humanities also scored higher in openness, visual-spatial skills and the ability to read their own and others’ emotions. Those with fewer interactions scored higher for qualities associated with physician burnout such as physical fatigue and emotional exhaustion.

    “The fields of art and medicine have been diverging for the last 100 years,” said Salvatore Mangione, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and first author. “Our findings present a strong case for bringing the left and the right brains back together — for the health of the patient and the physician.”

    Jefferson encourages student engagement in the arts and humanities to foster the essential skills related to healthcare including observation, critical thinking, self-reflection and empathy. The JeffMD curriculum, through the Medicine + Humanities Scholarly Inquiry track, is a formalized approach to embedding humanities into medical school.

    Similarly Tulane offers an elective course in medical humanities as well as student programming and community service opportunities that engage the arts. Tulane’s Creative Premedical Scholars Program offers early acceptance to undergraduate honor students in arts and humanities majors. Slightly less than half of the school’s first-year class of students earned undergraduate degrees in liberal arts.


  3. Study suggests objectification of women results in lack of empathy

    January 26, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Vienna press release:

    Sexualized representations, especially the emphasis of secondary sexual characteristics, can change the way we perceive an individual. An international team of researchers led by Giorgia Silani from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna has shown that empathic feelings and brain responses are reduced when we observe the emotions of sexualized women. The results of the study were recently published in the scientific journal Cortex.

    The way we appear, the way we look, has always been a crucial element in every social interaction, romantic or not. The use of sexualized representations of the individual, with a consequent emphasis on sexual body parts, is, especially in western society, a common way to induce emotions (especially pleasure) with the goal to increase the hedonic value of the associated object (see everyday media advertising). But what are the consequences of such sexualized representation? Social psychology has extensively studied the phenomenon, and concluded that sexualization (or sexual objectification) affects the way we perceive other people, in that it strips them of certain human attributes, such as a moral sense or the capacity to responsibly plan one’s actions. Social psychology also suggests that we perceive differently the emotions expressed by objectified vs. non-objectified individuals.

    A study recently published in Cortex, and led by Giorgia Silani from the University of Vienna, shows that observers have less empathy for sexually objectified women, meaning a diminished capacity to feel and recognize their emotions. This research was carried out in collaboration with Carlotta Cogoni, the first author, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA-ISAS) in Trieste and the Department of Life Sciences of the University of Trento, and Andrea Carnaghi from the University of Trieste. “The results suggests that the underlying mechanism may be a reduced activation of the brain’s empathy network,” says Giorgia Silani.

    The Study

    While measuring the brain activity of male and female participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging, Cogoni and colleagues elicited negative and positive emotions using a computer controlled ball-tossing task involving situations of inclusion and exclusion from the game. During the game, empathic reactions (in terms of both subjective explicit reports and objective brain activation) were measured toward two different targets: sexually objectified women and non-objectified (personalized) women.

    The scientists found that by simply modifying the type of clothes the actresses were wearing (i.e. with more or less visible body parts/skin), empathic feelings toward women portrayed in a sexually objectified fashion were significantly reduced compared to those shown in a personalized way. “This reduction in empathic feelings towards sexually objectified women was accompanied by reduced activity in empathy related brain areas. This suggests that observers experienced a reduced capacity to share the sexualized women’s emotions,” explains Silani.


  4. Study suggests mirror neuron activity predicts people’s decision-making in moral dilemmas

    January 13, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Los Angeles press release:

    It is wartime. You and your fellow refugees are hiding from enemy soldiers, when a baby begins to cry. You cover her mouth to block the sound. If you remove your hand, her crying will draw the attention of the soldiers, who will kill everyone. If you smother the child, you’ll save yourself and the others.

    If you were in that situation, which was dramatized in the final episode of the ’70s and ’80s TV series “M.A.S.H.,” what would you do?

    The results of a new UCLA study suggest that scientists could make a good guess based on how the brain responds when people watch someone else experience pain. The study found that those responses predict whether people will be inclined to avoid causing harm to others when facing moral dilemmas.

    “The findings give us a glimpse into what is the nature of morality,” said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, director of the Neuromodulation Lab at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center and the study’s senior author. “This is a foundational question to understand ourselves, and to understand how the brain shapes our own nature.”

    In the study, which was published in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, Iacoboni and colleagues analyzed mirror neurons, brain cells that respond equally when someone performs an action or simply watches someone else perform the same action. Mirror neurons play a vital role in how people learn through mimicry and feel empathy for others.

    When you wince while seeing someone experience pain — a phenomenon called “neural resonance” — mirror neurons are responsible.

    Iacoboni wondered if neural resonance might play a role in how people navigate complicated problems that require both conscious deliberation and consideration of another’s feelings.

    To find out, researchers showed 19 volunteers two videos: one of a hypodermic needle piercing a hand, and another of a hand being gently touched by a cotton swab. During both, the scientists used a functional MRI machine to measure activity in the volunteers’ brains.

    Researchers later asked the participants how they would behave in a variety of moral dilemmas, including the scenario involving the crying baby during wartime, the prospect of torturing another person to prevent a bomb from killing several other people and whether to harm research animals in order to cure AIDS.

    Participants also responded to scenarios in which causing harm would make the world worse — inflicting harm on another person in order to avoid two weeks of hard labor, for example — to gauge their willingness to cause harm for moral reasons and for less-noble motives.

    Iacoboni and his colleagues hypothesized that people who had greater neural resonance than the other participants while watching the hand-piercing video would also be less likely to choose to silence the baby in the hypothetical dilemma, and that proved to be true. Indeed, people with stronger activity in the inferior frontal cortex, a part of the brain essential for empathy and imitation, were less willing to cause direct harm, such as silencing the baby.

    But the researchers found no correlation between people’s brain activity and their willingness to hypothetically harm one person in the interest of the greater good — such as silencing the baby to save more lives. Those decisions are thought to stem from more cognitive, deliberative processes.

    The study confirms that genuine concern for others’ pain plays a causal role in moral dilemma judgments, Iacoboni said. In other words, a person’s refusal to silence the baby is due to concern for the baby, not just the person’s own discomfort in taking that action.

    Iacoboni’s next project will explore whether a person’s decision-making in moral dilemmas can be influenced by decreasing or enhancing activity in the areas of the brain that were targeted in the current study.

    “It would be fascinating to see if we can use brain stimulation to change complex moral decisions through impacting the amount of concern people experience for others’ pain,” Iacoboni said. “It could provide a new method for increasing concern for others’ well-being.”

    The research could point to a way to help people with mental disorders such as schizophrenia that make interpersonal communication difficult, Iacoboni said.

    The study’s first author is Leo Moore, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. Paul Conway of Florida State University and the University of Cologne, Germany, is the paper’s other co-author.

    The study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Brain Mapping Medical Research Organization, the Brain Mapping Support Foundation, the Pierson-Lovelace Foundation, the Ahmanson Foundation, the William M. and Linda R. Dietel Philanthropic Fund at the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, the Tamkin Foundation, the Jennifer Jones-Simon Foundation, the Capital Group Companies Charitable Foundation, the Robson family, and the Northstar Fund.


  5. Study suggests virtual reality makes journalism immersive, realism makes it credible

    December 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Virtual reality technology may help journalists pull an audience into their stories, but they should avoid being too flashy, or their credibility could suffer, according to a team of researchers.

    In a study, participants indicated that stories experienced in virtual reality — VR — significantly outperformed text-based articles in several categories, such as giving them a sense of presence, or the feeling of being there, and increasing their empathy for the story’s characters, said S. Shyam Sundar, distinguished professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory. Using a cardboard VR viewer for experiencing 360-degree videos was better than interacting with the same videos on a computer screen, he added.

    “VR stories provide a better sense of being right in the midst of the story than text with pictures and even 360-degree video on a computer screen,” said Sundar. “This is remarkable given that we used two stories from the New York Times Magazine, which were high quality and rich in imagery even in the text version.”

    Although virtual reality outperformed text and video, the researchers cautioned that relying on some of the flashier design elements of virtual reality may affect credibility and cause the audience to have less trust in the story. They discovered that evoking a higher sense of “being there” was associated with lower trustworthiness ratings of the New York Times.

    “What really makes people trust VR more is that it creates a greater sense of realism compared to text and that creates the trustworthiness,” said Sundar. “But, if it doesn’t give that sense of realism, it can affect credibility. If developers try to gamify it or make it more fantasy-like, for example, people may begin to wonder about the credibility of what they’re seeing.”

    That said, the immersive quality of virtual reality and 360-degree video may make the content more shareable, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

    “Virtual reality is often called an empathy machine,” said Sundar. “And, consistent with that thought, we did find that participants in both the VR and 360-degree video conditions were more empathetic toward the story characters than their counterparts in the text condition and they also reported higher intention to share the story with others.”

    Journalists on a tighter budget may consider using 360-degree videos. These videos, which allow users to rotate their view, are more immersive than the text-based story. However, these videos were unable to match virtual reality’s ability to make the audience feel like they are in the story, said Sundar.

    “On many things 360-degree video on a computer does as well as viewing it on a VR viewer, so you might not need to go through the trouble of putting together the cardboard viewer and slipping in the phone to experience it,” he added. “But, for being transported to the scene of the action, the VR viewer beats it.”

    The researchers noted that VR and 360-degree video demand more attention, which can hurt readers’ recall of story details.

    “We found some evidence to suggest that memory was affected by all the interaction with immersive journalism, but more research is needed to fully understand this effect,” said Sundar.

    The researchers recruited 129 participants and asked them to either read two stories in a magazine, watch the stories using 360-degree video, or use a cardboard virtual-reality reader provided by the newspaper company to view the stories.

    They asked volunteers to read two stories with different emotional intensity. The more emotional story — “The Displaced” — focused on the lives of three refugees. The other story — “The Click Effect” — examined marine biologists’ efforts to understand the vocalizations of dolphins. In general, the effects of immersive journalism were more pronounced with the less emotional story.

    The virtual reality stories were accessed through the newspaper’s mobile app.


  6. Study suggests sharing experiences improves wellbeing of healthcare staff

    October 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    Healthcare staff who regularly share the emotional, social or ethical challenges they face in the workplace experience less psychological distress, improved teamwork and increased empathy and compassion for patients and colleagues, a new study commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research reports.

    In the first in-depth study in the UK, researchers from the University of Surrey, Kings College London, the University of Sheffield and The King’s Fund examined the impact of Schwartz Center Rounds® (Rounds), on both clinical and non-clinical staff. Rounds are monthly forums that offer a safe space for staff to share experiences with colleagues and to discuss the challenges they face in their work and its impact on them.

    The psychological wellbeing of 500 staff members who attended Rounds regularly, irregularly or not all, was measured over an eight-month period, using the clinically validated GHQ-12questionnaire.

    Researchers found that the wellbeing of staff who attended Rounds regularly significantly improved, with the proportion of those with psychological distress halving- down from 25 per cent to 12 per cent. There was little change in the psychological wellbeing of staff that did not attend Rounds over this period.

    When asked of the benefits of Rounds, participants noted that attending led to greater understanding, empathy and tolerance towards colleagues and patients and positive changes in practice.

    Following the publication of the Francis report which highlighted Schwartz Rounds as being a way of fostering good teamwork and improving morale amongst staff, the implementation of Rounds in the UK rapidly increased. The research found that Rounds were implemented variably and challenges to implementation and sustainability included ward staff attendance, and the workload and resources required for planning and running Rounds.

    Jill Maben, Professor of Nursing at the University of Surrey and formerly of Kings College London, said: “Delivering care to patients at some of the most challenging times in their lives has an emotional impact on staff, which undoubtedly impacts on their own wellbeing and on their work.

    “Our study is the first in the UK to demonstrate that those who regularly attend Rounds see significant benefits; their symptoms of anxiety and depression are reduced, they are better able to cope with the issues they face and have more empathy towards patients and colleagues, which undeniably has a positive impact on those in their care.

    “Given these impacts it is good to see Rounds running in over 160 organisations in the UK, particularly in light of the Francis report, which called for more compassionate patient care. The challenge is for organisations to continue to invest in Rounds in resource-constrained environments.”

    Dr Cath Taylor, Reader at the University of Surrey and formerly of King College London, said: “NHS and hospice staff are the unsung heroes of our society, but the physical and emotional demands placed on them often go unnoticed, leading to high rates of burn out and people often leaving the profession. Rounds are a unique organisational wide intervention that we found benefitted many attendees.”

    Professor Jo Rycroft-Malone, Director of the NIHR’s Health Services and Delivery Research (HS&DR) Programme, said: “The NIHR is proud to have funded an important piece of research which is the first in depth study of its kind to evaluate the impacts of Schwartz Center Rounds. We feel this was an important area to research following the Francis Report highlighting the importance of Rounds.

    “Hospital and hospice staff work incredibly hard to care for patients and it is crucial that they can ease the physical and emotional demands they face while also helping to boost colleagues’ teamwork and morale and improve care, compassion and empathy for patients.”

    Professor Jeremy Dawson, Professor of Health Management at the University of Sheffield, said: “Schwartz Center Rounds offer a valuable support system to healthcare staff, that can help to improve wellbeing, and that enable a focus on compassion and empathy towards colleagues and patients that is difficult to achieve in their otherwise hectic working lives.”

    Jocelyn Cornwell, Chief Executive of The Point of Care Foundation (which holds the licence to promote and support Schwartz Rounds in the UK and Ireland) said:

    “We are delighted that this research shows that Schwartz Rounds have significant positive impacts on the well-being and experience of the staff who take part in them. The Rounds offer a unique space for all staff in organisations to come together as equals, to share experience and listen to one another.

    “In environments in which staff are under tremendous pressure, the Rounds offer a much-needed space for reflection and renewal. We hope that organisations that are not doing Rounds will pay attention to the research findings, and organisations that are doing them, will re-double their efforts to sustain them.”


  7. Study suggests something universal occurs in the brain when it processes stories, regardless of language

    October 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Southern California press release:

    New brain research by USC scientists shows that reading stories is a universal experience that may result in people feeling greater empathy for each other, regardless of cultural origins and differences.

    And in what appears to be a first for neuroscience, USC researchers have found patterns of brain activation when people find meaning in stories, regardless of their language. Using functional MRI, the scientists mapped brain responses to narratives in three different languages — English, Farsi and Mandarin Chinese.

    The USC study opens up the possibility that exposure to narrative storytelling can have a widespread effect on triggering better self-awareness and empathy for others, regardless of the language or origin of the person being exposed to it.

    “Even given these fundamental differences in language, which can be read in a different direction or contain a completely different alphabet altogether, there is something universal about what occurs in the brain at the point when we are processing narratives,” said Morteza Dehghani, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC.

    Dehghani is also an assistant professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and an assistant professor of computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

    The study was published on Sept. 20 in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

    Making sense of 20 million personal anecdotes

    The researchers sorted through more than 20 million blog posts of personal stories using software developed at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. The posts were narrowed down to 40 stories about personal topics such as divorce or telling a lie.

    They were then translated into Mandarin Chinese and Farsi, and read by a total of 90 American, Chinese and Iranian participants in their native language while their brains were scanned by MRI. The participants also answered general questions about the stories while being scanned.

    Using state-of-the-art machine learning and text-analysis techniques, and an analysis involving over 44 billion classifications, the researchers were able to “reverse engineer” the data from these brain scans to determine the story the reader was processing in each of the three languages. In effect, the neuroscientists were able to read the participants’ minds as they were reading.

    The brain is not resting

    In the case of each language, reading each story resulted in unique patterns of activations in the “default mode network” of the brain. This network engages interconnected brain regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the inferior parietal lobe, the lateral temporal cortex and hippocampal formation.

    The default mode network was originally thought to be a sort of autopilot for the brain when it was at rest and shown only to be active when someone is not engaged in externally directed thinking. Continued studies, including this one, suggest that the default mode network actually is working behind the scenes while the mind is ostensibly at rest to continually find meaning in narrative, serving an autobiographical memory retrieval function that influences our cognition related to the past, the future, ourselves and our relationship to others.

    “One of the biggest mysteries of neuroscience is how we create meaning out of the world. Stories are deep-rooted in the core of our nature and help us create this meaning,” said Jonas Kaplan, corresponding author at the Brain and Creativity Institute and an assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife.


  8. Study suggests understanding perceptions of reputation, identity offers opportunity

    September 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Notre Dame press release:

    Though we are taught from an early age not to judge others, we can use our perceptions of others to work toward positive outcomes, both socially and professionally, according to a study from the University of Notre Dame.

    Recognizing when our understanding of someone differs from that individual’s self-perception and also from how others see that same person can provide important insights into managing those relationships, according to “Knowledge of identity and reputation: Do people have knowledge of others’ perceptions?” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Brittany Solomon, research assistant professor of management and organization in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

    The research found that, regardless of how people personally view another person, they also are aware of how that person sees themselves, as well as how they are generally perceived by others.

    “Understanding others’ subjective realities can enhance empathy, cooperation and communication and may also influence one’s own opinions,” Solomon says. “This can prompt people to deliberate and even re-evaluate their own views or enable them to influence others.”

    Specifically, Solomon examined the extent to which people have insight into another person’s identity and reputation. Hundreds of study participants were asked to provide a range of personality perceptions from different points of view, while their friends and acquaintances did the same to show whether people can really see beyond their own views and accurately realize others’ perceptions.

    “Any time you’re interacting with other people, understanding their perspectives is important,” Solomon says. “For example, if I’m a manager or supervisor and I’m trying to motivate an employee, I can assign tasks that will really highlight their strengths or help boost self-esteem in areas of weakness. This approach can affirm people’s identities, build confidence and help uncover hidden talents.”

    Solomon, who studies personality as a predictor of a variety of individual and organizational level outcomes such as job satisfaction and career success, says the research results can greatly improve team dynamics.

    “If you know that one person is seen in positive or negative ways, you can highlight their attributes that perhaps other group members aren’t aware of,” Solomon says. “Or, you could avoid potential conflict by not grouping certain individuals together in the first place.”

    It’s not about determining whose perception is right or wrong. It’s about recognizing that multiple perspectives exist and how that awareness can help inform our interactions with one another.

    “People’s self-perceptions obviously are going to be skewed,” Solomon says. “What matters is that we’re aware of each other’s subjective realities. I think that sometimes people get along because they mistakenly assume everyone is on the same page. The more insight we have into the discrepancies and views of others makes our interactions legitimate. Ultimately, we don’t want to live in a world where we are deluded.”

    The findings can prove valuable in most contexts of life, including negotiation.

    The person who has greater insight into an opponent’s identity can, of course, leverage that information in various ways to win,” Solomon says. “Much of life involves interacting with others. As a friend, parent or teacher, understanding someone else’s identity can help that other person feel understood and provide the groundwork for effective motivation.”


  9. Mice feel others’ pain, literally

    August 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Neuroscience press release:

    Pain sensitivity associated with alcohol withdrawal may activate the same brain region in both drinking and non-drinking mice, finds a study published in eNeuro.

    Monique Smith and colleagues previously showed that “bystander” mice housed with mice undergoing withdrawal from opioids or alcohol experience hyperalgesia, a heightened sensitivity to pain, just like the induced-withdrawal mice. In this study, the authors explored whether brain regions associated with pain and empathy for pain in humans — the somatosensory cortex, insula (INS), and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — might be involved in the social transfer of pain in mice.

    Smith and colleagues compared the brain activity of “primary” mice with access to increasing concentrations of ethanol, bystander mice housed in the same room, and control mice housed in a separate room. The primary mice showed increased activity in the dorsal medial hypothalamus when access to alcohol was removed, which may indicate a role for this area in alcohol withdrawal. In contrast, bystander mice showed increased activity in the ACC and INS. The authors found that inhibiting activity in the ACC reversed hyperalgesia in both primary and bystander mice. These results suggest a potential neural overlap between physically-induced and socially-transferred hyperalgesia.


  10. When lovers touch, their breathing, heartbeat syncs, pain wanes

    July 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Colorado at Boulder press release:

    Fathers-to-be, take note: You may be more useful in the labor and delivery room than you realize.

    That’s one takeaway from a study released last week that found that when an empathetic partner holds the hand of a woman in pain, their heart and respiratory rates sync and her pain dissipates.

    The more empathic the partner and the stronger the analgesic effect, the higher the synchronization between the two when they are touching,” said lead author Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder.

    The study of 22 couples, published in the journal Scientific Reports last week, is the latest in a growing body of research on “interpersonal synchronization,” the phenomenon in which individuals begin to physiologically mirror the people they’re with.

    Scientists have long known that people subconsciously sync their footsteps with the person they’re walking with or adjust their posture to mirror a friend’s during conversation. Recent studies also show that when people watch an emotional movie or sing together, their heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronize. When leaders and followers have a good rapport, their brainwaves fall into a similar pattern. And when romantic couples are simply in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns sync up, research has shown.

    The new study, co-written with University of Haifa Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory and Assistant Professor Irit Weissman-Fogel, is the first to explore interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain and touch. The authors hope it can inform the discussion as health care providers seek opioid-free pain relief options.

    Goldstein came up with the idea after witnessing the birth of his daughter, now 4.

    “My wife was in pain, and all I could think was, ‘What can I do to help her?’ I reached for her hand and it seemed to help,” he recalls. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”

    Goldstein recruited 22 long-term heterosexual couples, age 23 to 32, and put them through a series of tests aimed at mimicking that delivery-room scenario.

    Men were assigned the role of observer; women the pain target. As instruments measured their heart and breathing rates, they: sat together, not touching; sat together holding hands; or sat in separate rooms. Then they repeated all three scenarios as the woman was subjected to a mild heat pain on her forearm for 2 minutes.

    As in previous trials, the study showed couples synced physiologically to some degree just sitting together. But when she was subjected to pain and he couldn’t touch her, that synchronization was severed. When he was allowed to hold her hand, their rates fell into sync again and her pain decreased.

    “It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples,” Goldstein said. “Touch brings it back.”

    Goldstein’s previous research found that the more empathy the man showed for the woman (as measured in other tests), the more her pain subsided during touch. The more physiologically synchronized they were, the less pain she felt.

    It’s not clear yet whether decreased pain is causing increased synchronicity, or vice versa.

    It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect,” said Goldstein.

    Further research is necessary to figure out how a partner’s touch eases pain. Goldstein suspects interpersonal synchronization may play a role, possibly by affecting an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with pain perception, empathy, and heart and respiratory function.

    The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples, or what happens when the man is the subject of pain. Goldstein did measure brainwave activity and plans to present those results in a future study.

    He hopes the research will help lend scientific credence to the notion that touch can ease pain.

    For now, he has some advice for partners in the delivery room: Be ready and available to hold your partner’s hand.