Empathy for pain helps us to understand the pain of others indirectly. To better comprehend the processing of empathic pain, we report the frequency-dependent modulation of cortical oscillations induced by watching movies depicting pain using high-density electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and motor evoked potentials (MEP).
Event-related desynchronization of EEG and MEG was assessed while participants viewed videos of painful (needle) or neutral (cotton swab) situations. The amplitudes of MEPs were also compared between the needle and cotton swab conditions.
The degree of suppression in α/β band power was significantly increased, whereas that of γ band power was significantly decreased, in the needle condition compared with the cotton swab condition. EEG revealed that significant differences in α/β band were distributed in the right frontocentral and left parietooccipital regions, whereas significant γ band differences were distributed predominantly over the right hemisphere, which were confirmed by source estimation using MEG. There was a significant positive correlation between the difference in γ power of the two conditions and the visual analog scale subjective rating of aversion, but not in the α/β band. The amplitude of MEPs decreased in the needle condition, which confirmed the inhibition of the primary motor cortex.
MEP suppression supports that modulation of cortical oscillations by viewing movies depicting pain involves sensorimotor processing. Our results suggest that α/β oscillations underlie the sensory qualities of others’ pain, whereas the γ band reflects the cognitive aspect. Therefore, α/β and γ band oscillations are differentially involved in empathic pain processing under the condition of motor cortical suppression.