Expecting Pain Can Increase How Much of It You Experience

There’s an interesting connection between how we think and what we feel emotionally and even physically. Think about a time you have psyched yourself into something, or out of something, for that matter. People with stage fright, for example, can relate to a feeling of intense fear and anxiety where their mind and thoughts had a strong correlation with how they handled the stress-inducing situation. Scientists are now looking for the connection between our expectations of pain and how much we actually feel. Their findings may make you rethink how much you dread that flu shot!



Scientists have, over the years, come up with a number of different ways to measure the things that they are studying. Sometimes it can be as simple a reading as a number, a temperature, a color, a height, or a simple yes or no. This makes it easy to compare results and analyze trends. When it comes to human studies, sometimes what the researchers need to know is a matter of perception. This is the case with measuring pain. What one person says was extremely painful, the other person might describe as only just a little bit painful. We each have our own gauge of pain based on our different experiences, physical conditions, and other physiological conditions.

For the research study conducted by Marieke Jepma, who is a neuroscientist working at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a number of different creative techniques were combined to measure pain. The goal of the study was to find out if someone experiences more pain from something such as a flu shot because they expected it to hurt a lot.

In the experiment, test subjects were exposed to a hot electrode on their bare skin. Before this was done, they had to first state how much they expected the contact to hurt based on a given scale of pain ranging from one to 100. These expectations were recorded. After the subjects were touched with the heated electrode, they also had to state how much the pain actually hurt. Again, they were to make use of the same pain scale. These findings were also recorded. What is very important in this study is that pain, as perceived differently by different individuals, was compared for each individual. The findings could be used to see how many of the 62 people tested experienced more, less, or as much pain as they had previously expected.

That was not the end of the study. An additional component which used neuroscience techniques involved measuring the brain activity to really bring more scientific backing and explanation of what was observed.

The experiment was run in an MRI machine where participants were asked to lie. This stands for magnetic resonance imaging. This machine makes use of magnetic fields to scan the brain. It is often used for a range of scans to diagnose conditions such as torn ligaments or tumors in the body.

In this study, the MRI scans were used to get detailed pictures of how the brain activity changed in the different parts of the brain as the subjects went through the exercise. This was used to find a link between changing brain activity and a person’s experience of pain.

The results of the research were very telling and have been published on October 29, 2018, in Nature Human Behaviour. They show that the test subjects had a particular MRI scan pattern depending on the cue they received before the electrode contact was made. It was clear that when people expected more brain, their brain activity increased a certain way, and when they expected less, the opposite was true. The electrode was kept at a temperature of 20° Fahrenheit.

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