Posts Tagged ‘Giandomenico Iannetti’

How to Hack Your Unconscious…to Take Control of Pain

August 4, 2018

This post is based on a feature article with the same title as this post by Emma Young in the 28 July 2018 issue of the New Scientist.  Many, if not most, people think that the amount of pain they feel is beyond conscious control. This is not true. Although you can’t influence your physiological pain response to things like an injury or illness, there are ways to reduce the amount of pain you perceive.

Goldstein, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Colorado conducted a series of studies in his lab. After he inflicted pain by heating volunteers’ forearms, they reported being touched by a stranger did nothing to reduce the discomfort, whereas being touched by their romantic partner did. The more empathic the partner, the bigger the effect. Goldstein says,”We already know that touch can communicate different emotions, for example, sadness and happiness. Perhaps we can also transfer our empathy through touch, resulting in analgesia.

We have ways to modulate pain, such as by the release of the body’s own painkillers. Sensory neuroscientist Giandomenico Iannetti of University College, London, says, “Generally you feel what is useful to feel.” But it is also possible to trick the brain into feeling less.

Maria Sanchez-Vives of the Cortical Networks and Virtual Environments in Neuroscience Research Lab in Barcelona, Spain and her colleagues have found another way to do this. Their studies show that if people can take “ownership” of a virtual reality (VR) arm and feel that it is their own, their ability to tolerate painful stimuli applied to their real arm improves. Maria Sanchez-Vives says “VR can be highly immersive, interactive and engaging.”

VR simulations of natural environments and other scenes are currently used in some hospitals to reduce pain, or doses of painkilling medication, when treating burns patients or even during surgery. If you don’t have a VR arm available, you can create a similar effect by moving you body into unfamiliar positions. Ianentti’s team found that getting volunteers to cross one arm over the other was enough to reduce the pain caused b a laser heating the back of one hand. This seems to work by confusing the brain, which normally maps signals from your right hand to the right side of your body and vice versa.

There are other pain-busting strategies, Distraction is effective, as anyone who has ever watched a TV mounted above a dentist’s chair knows. Pleasant smells seem to reduce the intensity of a painful stimulus, as does looking at pictures you find beautiful. Swearing can also work, perhaps by triggering a hormonal response that reduces pain. However, this tends not to work if you usually swear a lot.