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Pain: The Brain Plays Tricks

When it comes to our experience of pain, as with all things, context matters! If you’ve been following along with previous posts, you know by now that the MEANING we ascribe to the pain we are feeling is often more powerful in determining how we feel than the cause or stimulus of pain itself. Put another way, two people can experience the same level of pain, but have very different amounts of personal suffering as a result. Similarly, the same person can feel very different amounts of pain from the same cause in a different context. This was proven, rather brilliantly I may add, by a group of researchers who used light to modulate context. Our brains are primed to perceive some things as more dangerous than others. One such stimulus is heat, and based on our evolutionary priming we expect heat to be more dangerous than cold. Since we view the color red as more likely to be hot, and the color blue as more likely to be cold, this team decided to figure out if these colors impacted the amount of pain people felt. Amazingly, when the same exact stimulus (a cold probe measuring -20 degrees celsius in temperature) was applied to people’s hands, they experienced a higher level of perceived pain when the probe was illuminated with a red vs blue light. This is not so different from the context of receiving medical care. All too often people are told that they “can’t be fixed”, or worse: that someone else is responsible for “fixing” their broken body. This sort of disempowering language only makes things worse. Have you had any health-related experiences that “colored” how you felt about yourself and your body? Source: PMID: 17449180

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