Siri Leknes, Research Fellow at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo was keen to study how we react when things don’t go as bad as we expected them to. For instance, we visit the doctor and he says he will have to give an injection. The whole idea of an injection is scary and painful but soon the doctor says he is done with it. There is a sense of relief we experience at that point of time.
“It is not hard to understand that pain can be interpreted as less severe when an individual is aware that it could have been much more painful. Less expected, however, is the discovery that pain may be experienced as pleasant if something worse has been avoided,” Dr Leknes observed.
Dr Lenkes studied 16 healthy indviduals as they were asked to undergo an experience of heat applied on their arm for four seconds. At one instance, the heat was “bearable” [an experience similar to touching a steaming cup of coffee], sometimes the heat would raised up a notch so it was just bordering on unbearable. All the participants had to report their experience of the heat even as their brains were being monitored through MRI.
Pain was pleasant?
“As expected, the intense heat triggered negative feelings among all subjects whereas the non-painful heat produced positive reactions,” explains Siri Leknes. When the moderate pain was the “worst experience”, it felt unpleasant. But the same level of heat felt “comforting” after being subjected to higher heat levels earlier. “The likely explanation is that the subjects were prepared for the worst and thus felt relieved when they realised the pain was not going to be as bad as they had feared,” states Dr Leknes.“In other words, a sense of relief can be powerful enough to turn such an obviously negative experience as pain into a sensation that is comforting or even enjoyable.”
If pain can be pleasant, what’s the implication?
Dr Leknes points out that pain is generally a highly unpleasant experience and current pain alleviation treatments fall short for a number of people.
Envisioning a much worse alternative may be an effective mechanism to accept an involuntary pain as something agreeable.
“That is why it is so important to find out how and to what degree the brain can control pain on its own. We are currently carrying out basic research, but we hope that this knowledge will one day be applied to develop improved methods for treating pain,” she says.