It’s been said that pain can lead to pleasure. While there’s no empirical proof to support that bromide, a new study suggests that when something causes less pain than expected, it’s possible for it to feel pleasant. Researchers in Norway say their findings could lead to better ways to treat pain and substance abuse.
“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,” said Dr. Siri Leknes, a research fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo.
“Less expected, however, is the discovery that pain may be experienced as pleasant if something worse has been avoided.”
In the small study conducted by The Research Council of Norway, 16 healthy subjects who prepared themselves for a painful experience were repeatedly exposed to heat of varying intensity applied to the arm. The heat was either moderately painful, intensely painful or not painful at all.
While they were exposed to the heat, their brains were scanned by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The subjects were then asked how they interpreted the pain.
In the experiments where moderate pain was the worst alternative, the subjects reported the experience as unpleasant. In the instances where moderate pain was the best alternative, they found it positive, even comforting.
“As expected, the intense heat triggered negative feelings among all subjects whereas the non-painful heat produced positive reactions,” said Leknes. “The likely explanation is that the subjects were prepared for the worst and thus felt relieved when they realized the pain was not going to be as bad as they had feared.”
“In other words, a sense of relief can be powerful enough to turn such an obviously negative experience as pain into a sensation that is comforting or even enjoyable.”
But what occurred physiologically was revealed by the MRIs — which showed how the brain changed when it processed moderate pain. When the pain was comforting, there was more activity in the areas of the brain associated with pleasure and pain relief.
There was also less activity in the areas associated with pain.
Researchers say the study illustrates that exposure to the same stimulus is interpreted very differently among individuals; the experience is connected to expectation and context. And envisioning a worse alternative than what is actually experienced may help a person interpret involuntary pain as something that is agreeable.
Dr. Leknes points out that current methods of treating pain are often inadequate for many people.
“That is why it is so important to find out how and to what degree the brain can control pain on its own. We are currently carrying out basic research, but we hope that this knowledge will one day be applied to develop improved methods for treating pain.”