Recent studies show that motor responses similar to those present in one's own pain (freezing effect) occur as a result of observation of pain in others. This finding has been interpreted as the physiological basis of empathy. Alternatively, it can represent the physiological counterpart of an embodiment phenomenon related to the sense of body ownership. We compared the empathy and the ownership hypotheses by manipulating the perspective of the observed hand model receiving pain so that it could be a first-person perspective, the one in which embodiment occurs, or a third-person perspective, the one in which we usually perceive the others. Motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) by TMS over M1 were recorded from first dorsal interosseous muscle, whereas participants observed video clips showing (a) a needle penetrating or (b) a Q-tip touching a hand model, presented either in first-person or in third-person perspective. We found that a pain-specific inhibition of MEP amplitude (a significantly greater MEP reduction in the “pain” compared with the “touch” conditions) only pertains to the first-person perspective, and it is related to the strength of the self-reported embodiment. We interpreted this corticospinal modulation according to an “affective” conception of body ownership, suggesting that the body I feel as my own is the body I care more about.

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