Look at your body to reduce pain
10 February 2011
- UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience
- Professor Patrick Haggard
- Research paper in Psychological Science
- Coverage on the BBC
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Simply looking at your body reduces pain, according to new research by
scientists from UCL (University College London) and the University of
Published in the journal Psychological Science, the research shows that viewing your hand reduces the pain experienced when a hot object touches the skin. Furthermore, the level of pain depends on how large the hand looked – the larger the hand the greater the effect of pain reduction.
Flavia Mancini, the first author of the study, said “The image that the brain
forms of our own body has a strong effect on the experienced level of pain.
Moreover, the way the body is represented influences the level of pain
During the experiment, 18 participants had a heat probe placed on their left
hand. The probe temperature was gradually increased, and participants
stopped the heat by pressing a foot pedal as soon as they began to feel
The scientists used a set of mirrors to manipulate what the
participants saw during the experiment. Participants always looked
towards their left hand, but they either saw their own hand, or a wooden object
appearing at the hand’s location.
The team found that simply viewing the hand reduced pain levels: the pain
threshold was about 3°C higher when looking at the hand, compared to when
looking at another object.
Next, the team used concave and convex mirrors to show the hand as either
enlarged or reduced in size.
When the hand was seen as enlarged, participants
tolerated even greater levels of heat from the probe before reporting
pain. When the hand was seen as smaller than its true size, participants
reported pain at lower temperatures than when viewing the hand at its normal
This suggests that the experience of pain arises in parts of the brain that
represent the size of the body.
The scientists’ ‘visual trick’ may have
influenced the brain’s spatial maps of the skin. The results suggest that
the processing of pain is closely linked to these brain maps of the skin.
Professor Patrick Haggard said: “Many psychological therapies for pain focus on the painful stimulus, for example by changing expectations, or by teaching distraction techniques. However, thinking beyond the stimulus that causes pain, to the body itself, may have novel therapeutic implications. For example, when a child goes to the doctor for a blood test, we tell them it will hurt less if they don’t look at the needle. Our results suggest that they should look at their arm, but they should try to avoid seeing the needle, if that is possible!”
Media contact: Clare Ryan
UCL Neuroscience brings together all UCL neuroscientists to unravel the mysteries of the nervous system. They work across seven major themes to make fundamental discoveries about brain function and behaviour, to teach and train the next generation of scientists and clinicians, and to transform our ability to diagnose and treat neurological and psychiatric disease.
The Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary research institute at UCL. The Institute studies mental processes in the human brain, in health and disease, and in adults and children.