Pain: When expectations become reality

This post is also available in Dutch.

Pain is uncomfortable, and we’d all like to avoid it. But before you reach for the pain killers, why don’t you try relieving pain with your mind?

Image by Uncredited WPA photographer – Works Progress Administration photograph via [1], Public Domain

Woman feels pain while she gets vaccinated by a nurse.

Remember the last time you were in pain, maybe you had a headache, or perhaps back pain after a long day of work. When suffering from distressing feelings, all you want is to get rid of those feelings. Your first thought might be to take pain killers, but what if you approached pain differently? What if you tried to decrease the pain with the power of your mind? Research suggests that this might work.

Past experience shapes future predictions
Sensory experiences, such as pain, are highly subjective. This means that everyone feels or interprets an aversive event, such as pain, differently, and the reason for this is driven by our past experiences. When we encounter a past event, this experience shapes our expectations or future predictions for later future encounters. For instance, when I was a child, I had once received an electric shock after trying to fix a broken cable. As you can imagine, this was quite a painful and shocking event, imprinted in my memory. As a result, I have always been very careful near broken cables because I can predict or reimagine those similar painful sensations.

Change your expectations in order to feel less pain
Neuroscientists had the idea that by changing expectations, the sensation of pain might be changed as well. They investigated this in the lab and the results showed that it is possible to control pain through expectation. On the first day of the experiment, participants would learn to expect that an increase in time intervals (i.e. 7.5, 15, and 30 seconds) would signal an increase in painfully intense temperatures (i.e. 46, 48, and 50°C). After one or two days, participants would come back to the lab and would undergo a brain scan. During this session, the researchers would induce false expectations for related pain intensities; in other words, participants would expect to receive higher or lower pain intensities than what they actually received. Participants would additionally rate both the expected and experienced pain intensity.

When expectations become reality in the brain scanner
When participants expected lower pain intensities, their subjective experience related to pain, as well as brain activations associated with the sensation of pain, decreased. So it seems that we are able to control how much pain we feel when we change our expectations. The authors were enthusiastic about these findings, for this might indicate that positive expectations could in fact diminish the severity of chronic pain conditions. However, more research is needed as the same relationship between expectation and pain did not hold when pain increased. The full picture might therefore be a bit more complicated…

Are you curious about how to control pain with your mind? Find some mind-hacks to relieve your pain here.

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Written by Mahur.
Edited by Marisha.




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