This is a guest post written by Patricia Walling. It is a fascinating topic. Enjoy!
We often feel like when we really love someone we can feel their pain, and their suffering affects us greatly. Usually we explain this to ourselves as being the result of really caring about the one we love, and that it's completely a matter of the heart, but that may not be entirely the case. A recent study done at Monash University in Australia by Bernadette Fitzgibbon and some of her colleagues reveals that some people not only empathize with the pain of others, but can also feel it themselves. The study was done by using electroencephalography to monitor the brainwaves of amputees observing images of other people’s hands and feet in potentially painful situations. As it turns out, even if they don't normally feel phantom pain in their amputated limbs, amputees will actually feel real pain if they see others in pain or about to be in pain. This effect is called synaesthetic pain, which comes from the Greek syn-, together, and aisthe-, to feel or perceive.
Fitzgibbon and others propose that amputees are more able to feel synaesthetic pain in these instances due to a pain hypersensitivity, owing to the traumatic event of losing a limb. When we are threatened, our minds go into overdrive and are hypervigilant to pain anyway, and this is even more pronounced for those who have experienced such traumatic pain. This is much like when you are waiting to get a shot at the doctor's office, and the anticipation the pain of getting stuck with a needle is that much worse than if it happened randomly. Yet while you're waiting for the office to write up your bill and you watch someone else get a shot, something called our mirror neurons are also at work, making us wince when they stick them. These are the parts of our brain that allow us to “feel” the emotions of others, and enjoy drama in the theater.
However, that we can feel the suffering of others as though it were our own is nothing new to committed couples. Once my partner cut his hand wide open while cooking, and I could hardly look at it to bind it because it felt as though my own hand were cut open. In the past, I explained this experience as a result of our closeness, and that it was nothing to worry about. But with this new knowledge in mind, it is important to remember that when our partners are hurting, we hurt too. It can be easy to write it off as heartache and continue caring for them as much as we can, but we can end up hurting just as much, literally. Whether you're a full time caregiver or just helping your partner get through a nasty cold, it is important to remember that you also need to take care of yourself.