Is it really possible to take on other people’s pain?
You may have noticed that you can take on the emotions of others, such as grief or sadness for example. But what about their physical symptoms?
To get a look inside the science of how we take on other people’s pain, first we have to talk about the true source of pain and tension.
You might guess that stiff, tight muscles are to blame for pain in your body. But where does muscle tension come from in the first place?
Did your muscles just get tight randomly? Is it aging that causes muscles to dry up and stiffen like beef jerky?
Actually, no. Muscle tension is caused by chronic and habitual dysfunctional movement patterns.
In short: bad habits.
And those bad habits are often things we learned from other people through magical little cells in your brain called “mirror neurons.”
- They’re Called Feelings Because We Feel Them…Like, Physically
- Muscle Tension Is The Physical Manifestation Of Your Thoughts
How You Learned To Move (It’s Not What You Think)
In order to understand why we have bad movement habits as adults, we have to travel back in time to take a look at how you learn to move your body as a baby and toddler.
Humans are innately programmed to move. We have the capacity to breathe, digest foods, sleep, and wiggle around from the time we’re born, but neurological functioning becomes much, much more refined as children grow to adulthood.
While there are certain stages in the normal development of human locomotion — rolling over, sitting up, crawling, standing, walking — people aren’t computers. We don’t just run a software program that gets every single body up and running (literally) in precisely the same way.
Something greater is affecting our movement patterns.
If you’ve ever watched a child walking with his or her mother at the playground or mall and really looked at the two together, you’ll see how similarly they move.
Some aspects of movement are genetic (your musculoskeletal structure plays a role, for example).
But have you ever watched adopted children with their parents? They also tend to mirror the movement patterns of their caregivers. There must be some other effect at work here.
How It’s Possible To Take On Other People’s Pain
Fifteen years ago in Parma, Italy, scientists connected electrodes to the brain of a monkey. They hooked the electrodes to a computer to record neurological impulses that correlated with the monkey’s physical movement. The researchers wanted to identify specific brain regions related to movement.
Every time the monkey shifted around, a computer recorded data about the corresponding active brain regions.
One day, a researcher noticed something strange. He came back from lunch eating an ice cream cone. As he stood observing the monkey, he took a bite. Weirdly, the computer logged activity in the monkey’s brain — but the monkey hadn’t moved.
Thus began some revolutionary discoveries around what are now called mirror neurons.
Following the ice cream cone event, researchers found that the brain’s movement-related neurons fired when the monkey was eating peanuts, when he saw others eating peanuts, and when he heard the sound of another monkey eating peanuts.
Meaning: movement centers in the brain light up not **just** when you’re moving, but when you’re observing others move as well.
The real revelation, though, was that humans have a class of mirror neurons that are far more sophisticated than those of other primates.
Mirror Neurons: The Basis for Empathy?
So then the question becomes: why do we have so many mirror neurons? What purpose do they serve in human development.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti:
“Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking. We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”
Humans have extremely sophisticated and highly refined mirror neurons. Some of these cells are responsible for recognizing shapes and lines. Others plan movements, and still others detect frequencies, sounds, and directions of movement.
Mirror neurons allow us to fill in the gaps in the world around us, and they help us predict situations.
Participants in a study accurately intuited when they saw someone else reach for a cup of tea on a table whether the person was going to drink the tea or clear the cup away.
And because mirror neurons help us to have empathy for others, their downside is that they cause is to take on other people’s pain — not just emotional, but also physical pain.
Do Mirror Neurons Influence How You Take On Other People’s Pain?
Research done by the co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington Dr. Andrew Meltzoff shows that human kids are hard-wired for imitation. Babies repeatedly stick their tongues out to mirror human adults doing the same thing, even mere minutes after birth.
The fact that our mirror neurons fire when we observe an action taking place explains why we resonate so fully with certain sports and dance. It’s also why watching violence, unhappiness, and destruction on television is highly detrimental to our cortical health.
Also, since our thoughts and emotions are so intricately interwoven in our tissue structures, it means that we will tend to have similar movement, thought, and emotional patterns to those around us.
You will “mirror” the movement habits of the people who surround you — especially those with whom you have a close relationship.
This is important when it comes to pain for a number of reasons.
First, if you are imitating the movement patterns of a person who has suffered an injury and as a result experiences movement limitations, you will take on those same limitations — even in the absence of an injury.
Second, movement and thinking are deeply intertwined. In fact, the part of your brain responsible for movement and coordination, the cerebellum, is intrinsically linked to the part of your brain responsible for executive function, or thinking and reasoning skills.
What that means:
When you have a thought, movement centers light up to support that thought. When you move, thought centers light up to support that movement.
This matters when it comes to pain because pain is actually not experienced in the body, but in the brain.
The Neuroscience Of Pain
People tend to think of pain as happening at the site of an injury or tight muscle.
But actually, pain is a sensation generated by your brain.
Your nervous system sends sensory data to your brain, and your brain then interprets that data as pain. But sometimes your brain mixes up the signals. Stress, for example, sensitizes your nervous system to pain.
You’ll feel more pain with less input. It doesn’t take much for your brain to sound that pain alarm — a simple bump or bruise could be enough. Or, sometimes you’re in pain for no reason at all.
Some postures inherently increase stress. So, if you’re mimicking the posture and movement patterns of a person in pain, lo and behold, you could potentially develop the same neural pathways for pain in your own body.
Your movement is a type of broadcast tower communicating through body language. It signals all kinds of things about confidence, sense of personal power, and emotional state to the people around you.
But it also communicates to your own brain. That’s why smiling when you’re having a down day will lift your mood.
So, if you hang around people with stiff, achy, limited movement patterns…you’re going to find that you start to take on other people’s pain.
(Of course, the opposite is also true. If you spend time around people who move better than you, you’ll probably notice quantum shifts in your own body. #truefacts)
You Are the Average of The 5 People You Spend The Most Time Around
The long and the short of it is something psychologists have known for decades: the people you spend the most time around will affect your physical and mental well-being. People who move with pain in their bodies – aching backs, stiff shoulders and necks, arthritic knees, etc. – will activate similar movement patterns in your own body even if you are not suffering from the same pain…yet.
Athletes and coaches know the power of mirror neurons. Olympic athletes tout the power of visualization. Observing or imagining someone performing an activity directly influences muscle performance.
Fans of a sport experience mirror neuron activation while watching a game or match, but someone who has played the sport has a firestorm of activity in the brain area that initiates the movements. The athlete also predicts what will happen next more accurately than the person who has never played.
Additionally, if you are experiencing anxiety, depression, fatigue, or other emotional disturbances, you might want to examine your social group.
“The ability to share the emotions of others appears to be intimately linked to the functioning of mirror neurons,” said Dr. Christian Keysers, group leader of the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. “People who rank high on a scale measuring empathy have particularly active mirror neurons systems,” Dr. Keysers stated.
The Bottom Line
The bad news here is that you may have subconsciously learned some movement patterns that are less than ideal. But on the up side, it’s actually relatively easy to change out those dysfunctional patterns for new, more agile ones — when you know how.
The crux is that most people go to the gym, work out, and stretch for years or even decades without ever developing new neural patterns.3
Matteo Panichi says
Monkey see, monkey do…
Fabio Saviozzi says
si finisce sempre lì…. non c'è verso….
Diane Light, LMT - Craniosacral Therapy Nashville says
That explains a lot!
Roger Paradis says
Very useful information!
Susan Nicaise says
Yep.. my fiance had a suspected herniated L5 and before you know it, I had a very similar pain pattern! I thought it was just from hoisting him up and down in and out of the bed and chairs, the car, etc! I actually joked that it was sympathetic pain I was having! But then, the "mouse" in my left side isn't imaginary!
Debb Kirschner says
The human body and mind is incredible!
Living Well Pilates says
Mirror Neurons. Well worth reading, especially for instructors. "People who move with pain in their bodies – aching backs, stiff shoulders and necks, arthritic knees, etc. – will activate similar movement patterns in your own body even if you are not suffering from the same pain…yet. Athletes and coaches have benefited from the power of mirror neurons for years. Olympic athletes tout the power of visualization; observing or imagining someone performing an activity directly influences muscle performance."
Til Luchau says
NIce! Mirror neurons are thought to be involved in:
– Movement, learning
– Perceiving others’ intentions
Strongest when the observer:
– has themselves experienced that what they’re perceiving
– knows or identifies with the other person.
Check out: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16938094
Hey Til! Thanks for stopping by.
I knew that mirror neurons were strongest when you’ve experienced what you’re perceiving (i.e. a sport you’ve played) but not that they were strong when you know or identify with the person. Makes so much sense why we all move like our families and eventually our friends!
The little bits of neuroscience I can understand fascinate me, but I’m not sure I follow your logic in this case… If mirror neurons don’t experience a firestorm of activity when watching a sport you haven’t played before, then why would anyone adopt new painful movements simply by watching someone else move in pain? And if that’s how it works, then why don’t people in pain simply watch people who can move without pain to activate their pain-free movement patterns? I hope you don’t mind the questions!
Of course I don’t mind the questions! 🙂
It’s not that mirror neurons don’t fire at all when you’re watching a sport you haven’t played, but rather they fire more strongly if you have experienced the event.
And you wouldn’t adopt painful movement patterns from hanging around with a friend who has poor posture resulting in back pain for an afternoon, but if you hang out with him long enough, you might find yourself moving like him and experiencing the same kind of pain. We learn movements from our families for a couple of reasons: one, because we spend a whole lotta time with them, and two, because we identify with them (that last bit of info is new to me, thanks to Til, but makes total sense for what I’ve observed).
I personally have experienced this when living in Spain. I have certain mannerisms and facial expressions that I learned from my host sisters. They’re common in Spain, and when I speak Spanish or even talk about Spain, I find myself using these movements, which now feel odd because I haven’t lived in Spain for many years. But just spending a whole year immersed in the family, I mimicked their movements.
You won’t learn painful movement patterns from spending an afternoon with someone, but spend many hours each week, for years on end, with someone, especially someone close to you, and you might find yourself moving like them. Watch any “clique” or group of people and you’ll see that they have similar body language. It’s a way of belonging to the group, of saying, “I’m one of you.”
And, yes, you can unlearn these patterns; watching someone else move will expedite the process. It does take time, though. I liken it to a path through the forest. Right now, you have a well cleared path that’s wide and easy to follow, but circuitous. It winds all around the hills and valleys to travel a relatively short distance. You want to traverse the distance without the winding, so you hack through the bushes to get to your destination. This is your new, more efficient path (in your nervous system, it’s your new, more efficient movement pattern), but the path is still rough. It’s easier to take the wide, clear path, but the new path is at least now available. The more traveled the new path becomes, the more overgrown the old one gets. It’s still there, still available for your use, but it becomes less and less easy to travel and therefore the new path becomes the default.
Does that make some sense? Totally up for chatting about this more. I love this stuff!
Thanks for the reply, Sukie. Your forest analogy makes sense and seems like a good metaphor for neural plasticity. So correct me if I’m wrong, but your example of the friend with back pain makes it sound like it’s more likely for the person who isn’t in pain to mirror the movements of the person in pain. Why wouldn’t it be just as likely to go the other way?
I also agree that we pick up certain mannerisms and postures from our local and family culture, but how would you identify any particular movement as being painful in itself? If you intentionally imitate the movement of someone in pain for a few minutes, it doesn’t necessarily hurt, does it? And even if it did, then wouldn’t you stop doing it?
I guess it’s neither more nor less likely for a person in pain to mirror someone who isn’t and vice versa. Spend enough time around anyone and you’ll start to mirror them, regardless of their patterns. Perhaps who mirrors whom has more to do with how much a person wants to fit in or be accepted by another person, or other psychological factors. Exclusion by a group has been correlated with physical pain – reasonably so considering survival often depends on the group.
A movement is painful when it leads to imbalance – hunching the shoulders forward, for example, or walking with your head tilted down, looking at the ground. The problem is, these movements don’t hurt immediately, on the whole. Rather, their cumulative effects on our posture and pain levels become apparent after months or years of mimicking the same movement. Spend some time watching kids and you’ll notice that they don’t all have great, balanced posture or movement. They probably don’t hurt (though some do) but they are the ones who wind up in my office thirty years later with “inexplicable pain,” the kind that doesn’t come from an accident or injury, the kind that doctors shrug their shoulders at and prescribe painkillers for.
It’s like driving down the road with tires that are a little skewed. It might not be a problem immediately (unless you’re driving a performance vehicle, like a race car), but over time the misalignment will put a lot of strain on the car and wear out the tires much faster than if it were properly aligned.
Oddly, one of the exercises we did in Rolfing school was to stand next to another person in your comfortable stance, whatever is normal for you. Two other people would manipulate your arms and legs and shoulders until you were the twin of the person next to you. It was weird how someone’s normal posture feels constricting and uncomfortable, even difficult, when you put it on like a jacket. But if you spent time around that person for years and mimicked them little by little, I suppose you’d hardly notice the change.
Excellent comments and questions! 🙂
First of all, I’m not trying to be disagreeable just for the sake of it! But even from your example, what I see as a contributing factor to pain is the tendency to lose movement variety over time as opposed to any particular movement patterns in themselves. It’s a subtle distinction and maybe you will think it amounts to hair-splitting, but I’m of the opinion that it does make a difference.
To build on your car analogy: you could take a circular route to and from your job every day that only required left turns. If that’s all you ever used your car for, then you would most likely start to see some uneven tire wear, but is turning left the problem? They might have to go a certain way to work because of time constraints, but maybe they could just take a different way home? So instead of a client or patient trying to avoid certain movements or postures, what if they were encouraged to explore new movement possibilities?
I appreciate your willingness to field some critical questioning, and you seem to understand that my intent is on being constructive. But I don’t want to unnecessarily detract from your post either, so I’d be happy to continue this discussion offline if you would prefer.
Thanks for your time!
I totally agree that new movements are essential. That’s the next step in healing dysfunctional patterns – restore lost range of motion and create new, healthier habits. I typically use a combo of dynamic joint mobility and something I informally call “strength-stretching” along with hands on work to do this with my clients.
Edita Atteck says
Excellent and thought provoking article Sukie! I really enjoyed reading it as well as the comments and your answers. I find the mirror neurons a fascinating subject to study although I believe a lot more research needs to be done before we fully understand this mechanism and jump to conclusions.
I like to look at the positive side of each coin and would like to believe that if a person with movement disorder spends lots of time around people who have healthy movement patterns, s/he will eventually create healthier movement patterns and not the other way around 🙂 Or are we more susceptible to dysfunction?
What I find particularly fascinating in my practice (as I use guided imagery and visualization extensively in healing others) how imagery, possibly through the functioning of the mirror neurones, supports the healing process on physical, mental, and emotional levels.
Thank you and I will surely keep my eyes open to read about further research!
Thanks, Edita! Love your positive take. I agree that health can influence dysfunction and often does, but I also see that it needs to “outnumber” the dysfunction, i.e. be the predominant pattern in a given social group.