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.
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