Distinguishing Self from Other in Vicarious Perception of Touch and Pain

Bowling, Natalie C. 2018. Distinguishing Self from Other in Vicarious Perception of Touch and Pain. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Vicarious perception describes our ability to co-represent the experiences of others, by matching observed states onto representations of our own experience. For instance, seeing another person feel touch or pain elicits activity in regions associated with first-hand touch and pain sensation, including somatosensory cortices. Vicarious touch and pain perception is thought to facilitate complex social processes such as empathy, and also shows substantial inter-individual variability. For a minority of people, a physical sensation of touch (mirror-touch synaesthesia) or pain (conscious vicarious pain) is felt on their own body when observing someone experience the same sensation. Current theory suggests increased excitability in somatosensory cortices may underlie conscious vicarious experience. Recently, broader impairments in self-other distinction have also been implicated. This thesis first attempted to modulate vicarious tactile perception with transcranial current stimulation targeted at somatosensory cortices or the right temporo-parietal junction (linked to self-other control). A lack of modulation provided minimal support for either somatosensory excitability or self-other distinction accounts. Behaviourally, conscious vicarious pain responders and control participants did not significantly differ in self-other control abilities. Additional self-other distinction processes (beyond self-other control) were next considered. This revealed atypical bodily self-awareness in conscious vicarious pain responders. Lastly, perception of animacy was modulated by stimulus and perceiver variability, but did not significantly differ between mirror-touch synaesthetes and controls, providing implications for vicarious perception from inanimate stimuli. Collectively, this thesis highlights broader impairments involved in conscious vicarious perception, and the importance of the sense of bodily self-awareness for social perception and interaction in typical adults.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):



Mirror-touch, synaesthesia, vicarious perception, touch, pain, empathy, imitation, interoception, depersonalisation, animacy

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



30 June 2018

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

20 Aug 2018 15:16

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:13



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