Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 220, Issue 3–4, pp 277–286 | Cite as

Emotional primes modulate the responses to others’ pain: an ERP study

  • Jing Meng
  • Li Hu
  • Lin Shen
  • Zhou Yang
  • Hong ChenEmail author
  • Xiting Huang
  • Todd Jackson
Research Article


Previous event-related potential (ERP) and brain imaging studies have suggested observer responses to others’ pain are modulated by various bottom-up and top-down factors, including emotional primes. However, the temporal dynamics underlying the impact of emotional primes on responses to others’ pain remains poorly understood. In the present study, we explored effects of negative, neutral, and positive emotional priming stimuli on behavioral and cortical responses to visual depictions of others in pain. ERPs were recorded from 20 healthy adults, who were presented with painful and non-painful target pictures following observation of negative, neutral, and positive emotional priming pictures. ERP analyses revealed that relative to non-painful pictures, differential P3 amplitudes for painful pictures were larger followed by negative primes than either neutral or positive primes. There were no significant differential P3 amplitudes for painful pictures relative to non-painful pictures were found followed neutral and positive emotional primes. These results suggest that negative emotional primes strengthen observers’ attention toward others’ pain. These results support the threat value of pain hypothesis.


Pain Emotion Priming Event-related potentials (ERP) P3 



This research was supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (SWU1109084) and the Key Discipline Fund of the National 211 Project, China Education Ministry (NSKD08020).


  1. Avenanti A, Bueti D, Galati G, Aglioti SM (2005) Transcranial magnetic stimulation highlights the sensorimotor side of empathy for pain. Nat Neurosci 8(7):955–960PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Avenanti A, Minio-Paluello I, Bufalari I, Aglioti SM (2006) Stimulus-driven modulation of motor-evoked potentials during observation of others’ pain. Neuroimage 32(1):316–324PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Avenanti A, Sirigu A, Aglioti SM (2010) Racial bias reduces empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-race pain. Curr Biol 20(8):1018–1022PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bartholow BD, Riordan MA, Saults JS, Lust SA (2009) Psychophysiological evidence of response conflict and strategic control of responses in affective priming. J Exp Soc Psychol 45(4):655–666CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boly M, Garrido MI, Gosseries O, Bruno M-A, Boveroux P, Schnakers C, Massimini M, Litvak V, Laureys S, Friston K (2011) Preserved feedforward but impaired top-down processes in the vegetative state. Science 332(6031):858–862PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bonica JJ (1987) Importance of effective pain control. Acta Anaesthesiol Scand Suppl 85:1–16PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Decety J (2011) Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emot Rev 3(1):92–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Decety J, Grezes J (2006) The power of simulation: imagining one’s own and other’s behavior. Brain Res 1079:4–14PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Decety J, Lamm C (2006) Human empathy through the lens of social neuroscience. Scientific World J 6:1146–1163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Decety J, Yang CY, Cheng YW (2010) Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: an event-related brain potential study. Neuroimage 50(4):1676–1682PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Delorme A, Makeig S (2004) EEGLAB: an open source toolbox for analysis of single-trial EEG dynamics including independent component analysis. J Neurosci Methods 134(1):9–21PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Delplanque S, Lavoie ME, Hot P, Silvert L, Sequeira H (2004) Modulation of cognitive processing by emotional valence studied through event-related potentials in humans. Neurosci Lett 356(1):1–4PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Delplanque S, Silvert L, Hot P, Sequeira H (2005) Event-related P3a and P3b in response to unpredictable emotional stimuli. Biol Psychol 68(2):107–120PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Demaree HA, Everhart DE, Youngstrom EA, Harrison DW (2005) Brain lateralization of emotional processing: historical roots and a future incorporating “dominance”. Behav Cogn Neurosci Rev 4(1):3–20PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Eccleston C, Crombez G (1999) Pain demands attention: a cognitive-affective model of the interruptive function of pain. Psychol Bull 125(3):356–366PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fan Y, Han SH (2008) Temporal dynamic of neural mechanisms involved in empathy for pain: an event-related brain potential study. Neuropsychologia 46(1):160–173PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Friedman D, Cycowicz YM, Gaeta H (2001) The novelty P3: an event-related brain potential (ERP) sign of the brain’s evaluation of novelty. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 25(4):355–373PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Godinho F, Magnin M, Frot M, Perchet C, Garcia-Larrea L (2006) Emotional modulation of pain: is it the sensation or what we recall? J Neurosci 26(44):11454–11461PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Han SH, Fan Y, Mao L (2008) Gender difference in empathy for pain: an electrophysiological investigation. Brain Res 1196:85–93PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Han SH, Fan Y, Xu XJ, Qin JG, Wu B, Wang XY, Aglioti SM, Lihua Mao LH (2009) Empathic neural responses to others’ pain are modulated by emotional contexts. Hum Brain Mapp 30:3227–3237PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hein G, Silani G, Preuschoff K, Batson CD, Singer T (2010) Neural responses to ingroup and outgroup members’ suffering predict individual differences in costly helping. Neuron 68(1):149–160PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ibáñez A, Hurtado E, Lobos A, Escobar J, Trujillo N, Baez S, Huepe D, Manes F, Decety J (2011) Subliminal presentation of other faces (but not own face) primes behavioral and evoked cortical processing of empathy for pain. Brain Res 1398(29):72–85PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Ito TA, Larsen JT, Smith NK, Cacioppo JT (1998) Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: the negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. J Pers SocPsychol 75(4):887–900CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jackson PL, Brunet E, Meltzoff AN, Decety J (2006) Empathy examined through the neural mechanisms involved in imagining how I feel versus how you feel pain. Neuropsychologia 44(5):752–761PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kirwilliam SS, Derbyshire SWG (2008) Increased bias to report heat or pain following emotional priming of pain-related fear. Pain 137(1):60–65PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lang PJ (1995) The emotion probe: studies of motivation and attention. Am Psychol 50(5):372–385PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lang PJ, Bradley MM, Cuthbert BN (1990) Emotion, attention, and the startle reflex. Psychol Rev 97(3):377–395PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lang PJ, Bradley MM, Cuthbert BN (1999) International Affective Picture System (IAPS): instruction manual and affective ratings. (Technical Report No. A-4). The Center for Research in Psychophysiology, University of Florida, Gainsville, FloridaGoogle Scholar
  29. McCarthy G, Donchin E (1981) A metric for thought—a comparison of P300 latency and reaction time. Science 211(4477):77–80PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Meagher MW, Arnau RC, Rhudy JL (2001) Pain and emotion: effects of affective picture modulation. Psychosom Med 63:79–90PubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Minio-Paluello I, Avenanti A, Aglioti SM (2006) Left hemisphere dominance in reading the sensory qualities of others’ pain? Soc Neurosci 1(3–4):320–333PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Morrison I, Lloyd D, di Pellegrino G, Roberts N (2004) Vicarious responses to pain in anterior cingulate cortex: is empathy a multisensory issue? Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 4(2):270–278PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Olofsson JK, Nordin S, Sequeira H, Polich J (2008) Affective picture processing: an integrative review of ERP findings. Biol Psychol 77(3):247–265PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Rainville P (2002) Brain mechanisms of pain affect and pain modulation. Curr Opin Neurobiol 12(2):195–204PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rozenkrants B, Polich J (2008) Affective ERP processing in a visual oddball task: arousal, valence, and gender. Clin Neurophysiol 119(10):2260–2265PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Singer T, Seymour B, O’Doherty J, Kaube H, Dolan RJ, Frith CD (2004) Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science 303(5661):1157–1162PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Villemure C, Bushnell MC (2002) Cognitive modulation of pain: how do attention and emotion influence pain processing? Pain 95(3):195–199PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Williams ACD (2002) Facial expression of pain, empathy, evolution, and social learning. Behav Brain Sci 25(4):475–488Google Scholar
  39. Yamada M, Decety J (2009) Unconscious affective processing and empathy: an investigation of subliminal priming on the detection of painful facial expressions. Pain 143(1–2):71–75PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Yuan JJ, Zhang QL, Chen AT, Li H, Wang QH, Zhuang ZCX, Jia SW (2007) Are we sensitive to valence differences in emotionally negative stimuli? Electrophysiological evidence from an ERP study. Neuropsychologia 45(12):2764–2771PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jing Meng
    • 2
  • Li Hu
    • 2
  • Lin Shen
    • 3
  • Zhou Yang
    • 2
  • Hong Chen
    • 1
  • Xiting Huang
    • 1
  • Todd Jackson
    • 1
  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Faculty of Psychological ScienceSouthwest UniversityChongqingChina
  2. 2.Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Faculty of Psychological ScienceSouthwest UniversityBeibei, ChongqingChina
  3. 3.College of Mathematics ScienceChongqing Normal UniversityChongqingChina

Personalised recommendations