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Development of sensitivity to facial expression of pain

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Deyo, K. S.; Prkachin, K. M.; Mercer, S. R.

The ability to perceive pain in others is an important human capacity. Its development has not been studied. The present study examined the development of sensitivity to evidence of pain from childhood to early adulthood. One hundred and thirty-four males and females from four age groups (5-6, 8-9, 11-12 years and young adult) took part. They judged the amount of pain displayed on videotaped excerpts of the facial expressions of pain patients. Excerpts were selected to display no pain, some pain and strong pain, based on facial measurements, and were displayed to participants in a signal-detection paradigm. All participant groups were more sensitive to evidence of strong than some pain. The ability to detect pain expressions increased across the young, middle and older groups of children, but older children did not differ from adults. Increasing age was generally associated with increasing sensitivity to more subtle facial signs of pain. The results indicate that the ability to perceive pain in others is already significantly developed by the ages of five to six, but refinements in the ability continue through to early adulthood. These findings represent the first description of the development of the ability to perceive pain in others. Important areas for future research into the neurobiological, personal and social determinants of this ability are highlighted.

Research abstracts