We feel less pain when distracted

| Michaela Nesvarova

Are you in pain? Don’t pay attention to it! That might sound like a strange advice, but there is truth to it. In his PhD research, Jorian Blom has shown that attention truly affects pain. ‘If attention is completely redirected away from the pain stimuli, people perceive less pain,’ explains the soon-to-be UT graduate.

‘Pain is necessary for human survival, although we might not want to feel it. The ability to sense and process pain enables us to cope with potential life-threatening events. People who can’t feel pain often develop serious injuries that lead to a premature death - the majority of them dies before they are four years old. That shows how crucial the ability to sense pain is,’ begins Jorian Blom, who will defend his PhD thesis today. ‘However, we also all know that we feel less pain when we don’t pay attention to it, and so the main goal of my research was to gain more insight into the interconnection between pain and attention.’

Sensory and emotional pain

‘The experience known as pain consists of two parts: sensory and emotional. The sensory part is registered by specific receptor in our skin and body that sends signals to our brain. However, as pain is an experience, you have to give value to it – in other words, you have to be conscious and attend pain,’ continues Blom. ‘So a major problem with studying the relation between attention and pain is that you can’t simply ask people to not attend the pain and then still ask them to rate the pain they supposedly did not experience.’

For this reason, Blom decided to research the issue by measuring brain activity of subjects while applying pain stimuli. More specifically, the pain stimuli consisted of small electrical pulses resulting in a pinprick sensation applied to the forearm of research participants, whose brain activity was recorded using EEG. ‘In one experiment, the participants were asked to pay attention to the stimuli at first, while other times they were purposely distracted by, for example, having to do mathematical calculations,’ describes Blom.

Practical applications: behavioral therapy

Based on different experiments, researchers could see changes in brain activity and came to the conclusion that pain is consistently affected by attention. However, to what extent attention affects pain is highly dependent on the type of manipulation used. For instance, performing tasks like calculating or writing something has shown to be most effective if we want to distract ourselves from pain. Blom's findings could therefore be used for behavioral or clinical therapy, such as for people with chronic pain.