A Moment of Science

Painful Thoughts

Despite the wisdom of the constitution, it is simply not true that all people are created equal. Some are faster than others, some are better at math and some are musical geniuses, and some people have a higher threshold for pain than others. However, as a one study suggests, the ability to withstand pain is something that all people can improve upon, whether or not you’re born with this peculiar talent.

According to recent findings, the parts of the brain that react to pain are the same ones that process anticipation of how painful something might be. This implies that if you can convince yourself that something, say touching a hot stove, is not as painful as it really is, then actually touching the stove may not cause the same amount of pain as it otherwise might.

In fact, the researchers found that expecting something to be less painful than it actually is has about the same effect as morphine does on deadening pain. In other words, according to these findings, pain is largely subjective. If we expect something to be extremely painful, we may very well experience it as such. That’s one reason why for one person getting a shot at the doctor’s office is nothing more than an annoying prick, while for another it’s nearly akin to torture.

None of this is to say that you should try to convince yourself that touching an open flame or some other painful stimulus is no big deal. Just because something doesn’t feel painful doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful. However, this research does suggest new, thought-powered ways to combat pain from injury and illness.

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