Please wait a minute...
Acta Psychologica Sinica    2017, Vol. 49 Issue (5) : 622-630     DOI: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2017.00622
Empathy for pain influenced by cognitive load: Evidence from an ERP study
CHENG Jiaping1; LUO Yuejia1,2; CUI Fang1
(1 College of Psychology and Sociology, Shenzhen University, Shenzhen 518000, China) (2 Shenzhen Institute of Neuroscience, Shenzhen 518057, China)
Download: PDF(1324 KB)   Review File (1 KB) 
Export: BibTeX | EndNote | Reference Manager | ProCite | RefWorks    

Observing other in pain triggers the empathic responses, which involve two stages of processing temporally: an early, automatic processing that result in emotional contagion and affective sharing, and a later, cognitively controlled process related to emotional regulation. Previous studies suggest that this neural response can be modulated by numerous factors. However, no study has explored how working memory (WM) load can influence empathy for pain. Actually, almost every individual has to deal with other’s emotions with concurrent cognitive task in everyday life. To explore how other’s pain is processed under different cognitive load seems to be meaningful both theoretically and practically. In the present study, we investigated how different levels of working memory load can influence the processing of task-irrelevant stimuli showing other’s pain. Twenty two healthy undergraduates (eleven males) participated in the 2×2 within-subject designed experiment (mean age 20 ± 2.4). We manipulated cognitive load by requiring participants to memorize two (low WM load) or six (high WM load) digits at the beginning of each trial. Then picture depicting a person’s hands/forearms/feet in painful or non-painful situations was presented as a distractor. The participants were informed that these pictures were task-irrelevant and they should focus on memorizing the digits and they were required to judge if a given set of digits was the same as the one they saw at the beginning of the trial after the presentation of the picture. EEG during the observation of pictures under different WM loads was recorded by a 64-channel amplifier using a standard 10-20 system (Brain Products). The ERP results revealed that the WM load can influence the early automatic component P2 and N2. Comparing to low WM load, in the high WM-load condition, the painful pictures elicited significantly larger amplitudes in P2 and more negative amplitudes in N2 than the non-painful pictures. Meanwhile, under the low WM-load conditions, there was no significant difference between the painful and non-painful pictures. The present study found that the cognitive load mainly influence the early automatic stage of processing in empathy for pain. This result indicate that other’s pain attracts greater attention and can be better processed when the cognitive control resources were depleted (i.e., under high, relative to low, concurrent WM load). Under high WM load, enhanced emotional sharing and affective arousal level was reflected in the effect observed on P2 and N2. These findings were explained from the perspective of load theory.

Keywords cognitive load      pain empathy      event-related potential      N2      P2     
Corresponding Authors: CUI Fang, E-mail:   
Issue Date: 25 May 2017
E-mail this article
E-mail Alert
Articles by authors
Cite this article:   
CHENG Jiaping; LUO Yuejia; CUI Fang. Empathy for pain influenced by cognitive load: Evidence from an ERP study[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica,2017, 49(5): 622-630.
URL:     OR
[1] ZHANG Jijia, LU Yutong, ZHANG Qirui, ZHANG Jinqiao. The effects of foreign language anxiety, nervousness and cognitive load on foreign language lying: Evidence from Chinese-English bilinguals[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2020, 52(7): 861-873.
[2] LI Jin, SUN Yu, YANG Zilu, ZHONG Yiping. Social value orientation modulates the processing of social rewards for self: Evidence from ERPs study[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2020, 52(6): 786-800.
[3] LUO Yu,NIAN Jingqing,BAO Wei,ZHANG Jingjing,ZHAO Shouying,PAN Yun,XU Shuang,ZHANG Yu. Acute psychological stress impairs attention disengagement toward threat-related stimuli[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2020, 52(1): 26-37.
[4] LI Shouxin, CHE Xiaowei, LI Yanjiao, WANG Li, CHEN Kaisheng. The effects of capacity load and resolution load on visual selective attention during visual working memory[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2019, 51(5): 527-542.
[5] FU Chao, ZHANG Zhen, HE Jinzhou, HUANG Silin, QIU Jianyin, WANG Yiwen.  Brain dynamics of decision-making in the generalized trust game: Evidence from ERPs and EEG time-frequency analysis[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2018, 50(3): 317-326.
[6] TIAN Lumei, YUAN Jingchi, LI Yongmei.  Effects of peer presence and self-esteem on adolescent risk-taking behavior: Evidence from an ERP study[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2018, 50(1): 47-57.
[7] WEI Xiaona, QI Changzhu, XU Xia, HONG Xiaobin, LUO Yuejia.  The effect of tennis expertise on motion-in-deep perception: An event-related potential study[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2017, 49(11): 1404-1413.
[8] FAN Wei; ZHONG Yiping; YANG Zilu; LI Jin; OUYANG Yi. The degree of self-reference effect of extroversion individuals[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2016, 48(8): 1002-1012.
[9] SONG Juan; GUO Fengbo; ZHANG Zhen; YUAN Sheng; JIN Hua; WANG Yiwen. Interpersonal distance influences on pain empathy: Friends priming effect[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2016, 48(7): 833-844.
[10] MENG Yingfang; LIN Wuji; LIN Jingyuan; CAI Chaoqun. The phonological or semantic activation of non-target language in an immediate cross-language switching paradigm[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2016, 48(2): 121-129.
[11] HU Yanmei; ZHANG Ming. Electrophysiological evidence for memory-based attentional capture and memory-based attentional rejection effects[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2016, 48(1): 12-21.
[12] WANG Yiwen; ZHANG Zhen; YUAN Sheng; GUO Fengbo; HE Shaoying; JING Yiming. The Decision-making and Outcome Evaluation during a Repeated Trust Game[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2015, 47(8): 1028-1038.
[13] ZHANG Dandan; ZHAO Ting; LIU Yunzhe; CHEN Yuming. Comparison of Facial Expressions and Body Expressions:  An Event-related Potential Study[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2015, 47(8): 963-970.
[14] GAO Xuemei; WENG Lei; ZHOU Qun; ZHAO Cai; LI Fang. Dose Violent Offenders Have Lower Capacity of Empathy for Pain: Evidence from ERPs[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2015, 47(4): 478-487.
[15] YANG Yaping; XU Qiang; ZHANG Lin; DENG Peizhuang; LIANG Ningjian. Scenes Differing in Spatial Frequencies Affect Facial Expression Processing: Evidence from ERP[J]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2015, 47(12): 1433-1444.
Full text



Copyright © Acta Psychologica Sinica
Support by Beijing Magtech