Dragutin Ivanec, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia
It hurts differently depending on the context – psychological aspects of pain sensation
All of our sensory-perceptive systems make our organism more adaptive to the changing environment. Even though sight is considered to be the most important system by the literature, and it is estimated that we receive around 80% of conscious stimuli from the environment by sight, the fact that people who are blind can efficiently function tells us that the human organism can prevail without visual sensory information. But without pain sensation, that would not be possible. Intuitively it is clear that this sensory-perceptive system is crucial for survival of the species. It warns us of adverse environment or internal processes that may be harmful. If for some (rare) reason this system is not functional, as we know from some sparsely documented cases, organism can not survive.
This lecture aims to present some general and some specific characteristics of pain sensation and perception. A short comparison between pain and other sensory-perceptive systems will be based upon the analysis of different contextual influences on sensation and perception. The purpose is to demonstrate the fact that all our sensory-perceptive systems do not function on the bases of simple stimuli replication, but that the majority of conscious reactions to external stimulation are the result of simple or complex interactions between different sensory-perceptive systems, as well as their interaction with higher cognitive processes. In the context of pain sensation, understanding these contextual factors may be very interesting since the potential to change (to lower) the intensity of pain is a desirable outcome. The possibility of modulating the amount of nociceptive activity as a function of changing some psychological factors, is interesting both from the pragmatic and scientific view. The results from empirical studies on the role of different psychological factors in the change of pain sensation intensity will be presented. Some of these factors are attention distraction, emerging emotions, making expectations, learning process as well as different state of consciousness.
Results suggest that some psychological and contextual factors, as well as their interactions, may lead to significant changes in pain sensation and may modulate physiological processes underlying pain sensation. In this respect, the most investigated and demonstrated is the placebo effect, a par exellance example of contextual influence on pain sensation modulation.