How do you feel if you see another female suffered unfair treatment due to her gender? Uncomfortable? Sad? Angry? Maybe much worse. Unfortunately, the observed gender discrimination arouses individuals’ negative psychological states and strengthens their brain responses to body pain.
Previous studies showed that experiencing social pain (e.g., social exclusion) may increase individuals’ perception of physical pain. Gender discrimination, as an essential source of social pain, is a serious issue across a broad spectrum of society and increases negative consequences on personal feelings. However, few studies have explored the mechanism underlying how gender discrimination modulates physical perception, especially when individuals experience body pain.
The research team led by Dr.KONG Yazhuo recently explored the mechanism underlying how the observed gender discrimination modulates individuals’ pain perception. They combined a discrimination-related functional MRI paradigm (i.e., discrimination vs. control cues, in the cue stage) with a heat pain stimulation (i.e., low heat vs. high heat, in the pain stage). By this, the research examined how brain responses were modulated by discrimination when females experienced physical pain.
After participants observing cues related to gender discrimination, they reported worse painful feelings, and their brain activations in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (the dACC) increased. The dACC played a central role in mediating pain perception. The potential functional connection based on the dACC in the cue stage remained alertness and anticipation; thus, the reappraisal of pain perception could work in the pain stage.
Figure1.The experimental setup (top panel) and the whole-brain functional connectivity in the cue stage (A) and the pain stage (B). Image by Dr. ZHANG Ming.
The current results prove that watching or sharing others’ feelings about being discriminated against (not simply directly experiencing discrimination) increases one’s own physical pain experiences and evaluations. It suggested an overlap between sharing in others’ discrimination experiences at a psychological level and feeling one’s pain perceptions at a physical level.
The study entitled “Gender discrimination facilitates fMRI responses and connectivity to thermal pain,” supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, has been published online in NeuroImage on Oct 9, 2021.
Institute of Psychology
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Beijing 100101, China.