Less Pain? Just Look
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Less Pain? Just Look

Why do we tend to look at an area on our body that hurts? It turns out that looking at a hurt body part might help deal with the pain.

Decreasing Pain

Ever noticed that when we bump into something, we always look at the affected area, like our shin, or something else? That seems to be utterly useless, but maybe looking at the area where the pain comes from has its use after all. In a recent experiment, test subjects had a heat probe placed on their hand, after which the temperature of this probe was gradually increased. As soon as the volunteers felt pain, they could press a pedal, which effectively stopped the increase in temperature.

The results showed that when the subjects were allowed to look at their hand, they could bear 3 degrees Celsius more heat than they could when they weren’t able to see the hand with the heat probe. To take it a step further, the researchers also used mirrors that made the hand look larger or smaller. And strangely, when their hand appeared to be larger, the test subjects were able to bear even more heat. When the hand looked smaller, they pressed the pedal earlier, indicating that they could bear less pain.

The Body in the Brain

This experiment shows that the image the brain forms of the body has a great effect on the pain one experiences. This suggests that pain has its origin in the same brain areas that are responsible for the representation of the size of the body and its parts. The visual trick of the scientists probably influenced the spatial representation the brain makes of the skin. The processing of pain is than probably related to the brain maps of the skin.

New Ways to Deal With Pain

This finding might potentially lead to new therapeutic applications in the treatment of pain. At present, psychological techniques focus on the pain stimulus the patient experiences, for example by changing his or her cognitive expectations, or using diversion techniques. One example of this everybody knows, is that we tell children to look away from their arm when they’re having their vaccine shots. This research, however, suggests that it might be more useful to have the kids look at their arm, without, of course, looking at the needle if that is at all possible.


  • Mancini, F.; Longo, M.R.; Kammers, M.P.M. & Haggard, P. (2011). Visual Distortions of Body Size Modulates Pain Perception. Psychological Science. Published online 8 February 2011, doi:10.1177/0956797611398496.
  • University College London, News (10 February 2011): Look at your body to reduce pain. (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1102/10021101)

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Comments (2)

nice work.thanks

good article, yes the brain sends signals for pain