If you accidently kick your toe against a doorframe you are probably going to find it very painful. As a purely intellectual experiment, imagine purposefully kicking a doorframe hard enough to potentially break your toe. When it turns out your toe has been battered but not broken, the pain may be interpreted more as a relief.
"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," explains Siri Leknes, Research Fellow at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo.
The lesser of two evils
When working as a research fellow at Oxford University, Dr Leknes became curious about what can be called the "it could have been worse" phenomenon. How is the experience of pain affected by a feeling of relief from realising that it was not as bad as expected?
Dr Leknes recruited 16 healthy subjects who prepared themselves for a painful experience. They were repeatedly exposed to heat of varying intensity applied to their arm for four seconds.
The experiments were carried out in two different contexts: in the first, the heat was either not painful or only moderately painful about the same as firmly holding a coffee cup that is slightly too hot. In the second, the heat was either moderately or intensely painful. In this context, moderate pain was the lesser of two evils.
The research subjects reported how they interpreted the pain. In addition, while they were exposed to the stimuli their brain activity was measured by MRI.
"As expected, the intense heat triggered negative feelings among all subjects whereas the non-painful heat produced positive reactions," explains Siri Leknes.
What intrigued the researchers was the subjects' response to moderate pa
|Contact: Thomas Keilman|
The Research Council of Norway