If a politician says “I feel your pain,” it’s a pretty sure bet they’re lying. But new research suggests that if your best friend tells you the same thing instead, they might be telling you the literal truth.
There's a chance they might actually be feeling your real, physical pain.
The concept of contagious emotions is nothing new. We've had an inkling that emotions can spread for a long time, and recently science has begun to back the idea up. You might have missed it, but earlier this year an intriguing study found that stress is contagious. It showed that one stressed-out person can “infect” another. And for years, positive psychologists have told us that happiness is catching.
But these two issues are purely psychological. They involve a response to the emotions of others around us. The idea of physical pain being "contagious" is a whole different ballgame. Being around someone who’s hurting might cause an emotional reaction, but not physical pain…right?
It might be time to re-think that. Intriguing new research suggests that physical pain too might be “contagious”—at least in animals. Whether this holds true for humans remains to be seen.
If you’re a mouse, you really do feel your neighbor’s pain
A recent study from Oregon Health and Science University suggests that we may be susceptible to more than just other people’s emotions. The experiment showed that—in animals at least—physical pain can spread through non-physical means.
For the study, the researchers used three groups of mice. Two were kept in the same room, but their cages were 3-6 feet apart. They couldn’t see each other so the response didn’t come from visual cues or even vocal ones. The other group was kept in another room. Be prepared—what they did isn’t pretty. But it IS interesting.
To create pain, they did one of two things: they addicted the mice to alcohol or heroin and then let them suffer withdrawls, or they injected their paws with a chemical that hurt them. That’s the not-pretty part.
Now here’s the interesting part. When the active group was going through withdrawls, the “bystander” mice in the same room appeared to feel the same level of pain. The mice in the other room were unaffected. And when they were injected with the painful chemical, the bystanders also showed signs of pain, though not as much.
And here’s the most intriguing thing of all: they had the same reaction when they were exposed to the bedding of the mice who’d had pain inflicted on them. That suggests that pain might make them produce a scent or a pheromone that others can sense. It also suggests that this can trigger an actual physical pain reaction in others.
Empathy, sympathy, telepathy, or chemistry?
So how does this relate to us human beings? I’ll be honest—I’m not totally sold on the idea that we can pinpoint what animals are feeling. Especially animals as different from us as mice are. As I talked about in another article, one of the problems with mouse studies is that mice simply can’t tell us what they’re feeling. We’re guessing, and we may or may not get it right. On the other hand, I’ve seen enough instances of “contagious pain” myself to believe it’s a probability.
Consider this: have you ever spent time with a friend or a family member and developed a headache, only to discover that they too have one? How about an aching back (when you haven’t done anything to prompt it)? I’ve certainly had these things happen, and have seen many similar scenarios play out among other people. I’m firmly convinced that—at least for some people—pain really can be “contagious.” The important takeaway from this study, for me, is that it gives us a possible mechanism for why contagious pain happens.
While no one can argue that our sense of smell compares to that of any other animals—we’re far less sensitive—earlier research has shown that we do respond to many smells we’re not consciously aware of. And although there’s still some debate on the subject, it’s likely that we also produce pheromones just like other animals—though not all people may have the ability to perceive them. That gives us two likely ways for pain to spread from person to person without any physical interaction.
So what’s the takeaway?
There’s no way of knowing if the “bystander” mice in this study were feeling the same kind of pain as the active group. There’s no way of knowing if they were feeling it in the same body parts. What the researchers did observe is that they seemed to feel pain when there was no physical stimulus. This could explain a lot of things in the human world. Some are speculating that it might help us understand fibromyalgia, for example.
It could also be a real problem for people living with someone who has chronic pain. Living in close contact with someone in pain could cause more pain, if this study translates to humans. And here’s an interesting idea which I haven’t seen addressed: If pain causes us to produce a specific scent that triggers pain in others, could it mean chronic pain is a self-perpetuating cycle?
Here’s what I mean: the study researchers found that just exposing the “bystander” mice to the bedding of the hurt mice caused pain. Now, in many cases of chronic pain, the person originally had an injury which eventually healed. But even though the injury went away, the pain didn’t. And though it’s certainly not true of all chronic pain, in many cases there’s no apparent physical reason for the sufferer to continue having pain. This is one of the big mysteries of chronic pain.
Could it be that chronic pain sufferers are especially sensitive to whatever subtle odor or pheromone makes pain contagious? That their pain never goes away because they are constantly re-exposed to this pain-triggering odor/pheromone?
Think about this: you have an injury and you’re hurting. Everything you touch, from your clothes to your kitchen counter to your carpet becomes contaminated with the pain-triggering chemical. If you’re sensitive to this chemical then every time you come in contact with it you’re going to be re-exposed, potentially causing pain all over again. This could continue indefinitely. It might explain why there so often seems to be no physical cause for chronic pain. And more than that, it might give us real hope for treating it.
Food for thought.