One particularly interesting piece of research we are exploring in Pain Less is all about the power of the mind…
I’m not a morning person, and every now and then when I drag myself out of bed and, bleary-eyed, wander towards the bathroom, I stub my toe on an inconveniently placed step. It has to be the most unreasonably painful experience for first thing in the morning. According to new research, my grumpy morning mood may actually contribute to my pain. Neuroscientist Irene Tracey believes the power of the mind can drastically change the extent of our pain, and that feelings of sadness and anxiety can increase the level of pain we experience.
‘Emotions, how sad or anxious you feel, change the way signals from damaged parts of the body are processed by the brain – the organ that produces the experience of pain – so they directly influence the pain felt by the subject.’
But how does she test this?
‘I look for volunteers to experience pain in controlled laboratory experiments. When the volunteer is anxious or depressed, they feel pain more intensely. During some tests I make the volunteers feel depressed by playing slow sad music and getting them to read negative things about themselves. It may seem harsh but doing this is helps us to understand the impact our mind has on our perception of pain. This means future pain treatments might target both the body and the mind.’
And how does Irene measure people’s response to pain?
One example is this special ‘poking’ equipment, which Irene uses to do what are called Von Frey Filament tests. It ensures her willing victims all experience the same level of pain. Irene has pointed us in the direction of where we can get our hands on our own set of these pain-inflicting sticks for Pain Less – for display purposes only of course!
To get more accurate results Irene also uses some more hi-tech poking devices – lasers. These heat the skin to 50 degrees Celsius, and we hope to get hold of one of these for the exhibition too…