The causal role of the somatosensory cortex in prosocial behaviour

Selene Gallo, Riccardo Paracampo, Laura Müller-Pinzler, Mario Carlo Severo, Laila Blömer, Carolina Fernandes-Henriques, Anna Henschel, Balint Kalista Lammes, Tatjana Maskaljunas, Judith Suttrup, Alessio Avenanti, Christian Keysers, Valeria Gazzola*

*Corresponding author for this work
3 Citations (Scopus)


Witnessing another person’s suffering elicits vicarious brain activity in areas that are active when we ourselves are in pain. Whether this activity influences prosocial behavior remains the subject of debate. Here participants witnessed a confederate express pain through a reaction of the swatted hand or through a facial expression, and could decide to reduce that pain by donating money. Participants donate more money on trials in which the confederate expressed more pain. Electroencephalography shows that activity of the somatosensory cortex I (SI) hand region explains variance in donation. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) shows that altering this activity interferes with the pain–donation coupling only when pain is expressed by the hand. High-definition transcranial direct current stimulation (HD-tDCS) shows that altering SI activity also interferes with pain perception. These experiments show that vicarious somatosensory activations contribute to prosocial decision-making and suggest that they do so by helping to transform observed reactions of affected body-parts into accurate perceptions of pain that are necessary for decision-making.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere32740
Publication statusPublished - 08.05.2018

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


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