Vicarious facilitation of facial responses to pain

Abstract

Introduction: Observing facial expressions of pain has been shown to lead to increased subjective, neural and autonomic pain responses. Surprisingly, these vicarious facilitation effects on its corresponding response channel, namely facial responses to pain have mostly been neglected. We aim to examine whether the prior exposure to facial expressions of pain leads to a facilitation of facial responses to experimental pain; and whether this facilitation is linked to the valence (pain vs. neutral expression) or also linked to specific motor-features of the facial pain expressions (different facial muscle movements). Method: Subjective (intensity and unpleasantness ratings) and facial responses (Facial Action Coding System) of 64 participants (34 female) to painful and non-painful heat stimuli were assessed. Before each heat stimulus, video clips of computer-generated facial expressions (three different pain expressions and a neutral expression) were presented. Results: The prior exposure to facial expressions of pain led to increased subjective and facial responses to pain. Further, vicarious pain facilitation of facial responses was significantly correlated with facilitation of unpleasantness ratings. We also found evidence that this vicarious facilitation of facial responses was not only linked to the presentation of pain versus neutral expressions but also to specific motor-features of the pain cue (increase in congruent facial muscle movements). Discussion: Vicarious pain facilitation was found for subjective and facial responses to pain. The results are discussed with reference to the motivational priming hypothesis as well as with reference to motor priming. Significance: Our study uncovers evidence that facial pain responses are not only influenced by motivational priming (similar to other types of pain responses), but also by motor-priming. These findings shed light on the complexity -ranging from social, affective and motor mechanisms -underling vicarious facilitation of pain

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