Cognitive Control: Exploring the causal role of the rTPJ in empathy for pain mediated by contextual information


Empathy determines our emotional and social lives. Extensive research has recognised the role of the right temporo-parietal junction (rTPJ) in social cognition, however there is less direct causal evidence for its involvement in empathic responses to pain. Given the rTPJ’s role in the false beliefs and contextual information during social scenarios, we hypothesised that the empathic response to another’s pain might depend on the rTPJ if participants were given information about people’s intentions. Participants viewed videos of an actress freely showing or suppressing pain caused by an electric shock. During the task, participants either received 6Hz repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) over the rTPJ or sham vertex stimulation. Active rTMS had no significant effect on participants’ ratings depending on the pain expression, although participants rated the actress’ pain as lower during rTPJ perturbation. In contrast, rTMS accelerated the reaction times during pain suppression.In addition, we found that participants perceived the pain of the actress more intense when they knew that she would suppress vs. show it. These results suggest that the rTPJ may be involved in the process of attributing pain to others and provide new insights into people’s behaviour in judging others’ pain when it is concealed

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