cat thrasher photography

Viewing pictures of loved ones reduces perceived pain

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If you view a photograph of your partner while in physical pain, it reduces your perception of that pain! In a recent study conducted by Sarah Master and colleagues at UCLA (A Picture’s Worth), 25 females in long-term relationships were presented with aversive thermal stimulation on their forearm while being shown photographs of either their male partner, a stranger male, a chair (neutral object), or no picture. Subjects reported less pain while viewing a photograph of their partner compared to the other conditions! Amazing! The authors conclude that “seeing photographs of loved ones may prime associated mental representations of being loved and supported, which may be sufficient to attenuate the pain experience.”

One more reason that family portraits are so important in our lives!!

The authors also repeated a procedure used for an earlier study of hand-holding, in which subjects held the hand of their partner, a stranger-male or no one’s hand, resulting in very similar effects: perceived pain was less during partner hand-holding! As luck would have it, my own partner, Jim Coan, who is at UVa., completed a hand holding study in 2006 and found similar results. In this earlier study (Lending a Hand), Coan found that when women held the hand of their husband, the areas of their brain that normally responded to threat were significantly less active when subjects were put under threat of electric shock, which Coan characterized as a possible “out-sourcing” of the threat response. Even more interesting: the quality of their relationship affected the benefit of hand holdinghigher relationship satisfaction ratings correlated with a greater reduction in threat responses in the brain during the partner hand-holding condition.

This possible “out-sourcing” of threat response, along with many other studies done with rats and critters, has prompted Coan to develop something called the Social Baseline theory. This theory posits that the “baseline” condition for humans is to be around other people, not to be alone. This has implications for many levels of science. For example, by not assuming that an individual alone in a room is in their “normal” state during a research study or medical procedure, but is in fact in a possibly distressing state of “without others,” we might more fully understand how the brain copes with potential dangers in its environment. The stress of being without others needs to be taken into account when doing research, treatment, or simply in approaching life. In this vein, the UCLA study is kind of poetic: to think that we only need to view a picture of a loved one to get the same social support as having them physically present.

The study by Master and colleagues does a great job of expanding Coan’s original hand-holding procedure with picture-viewing and is exciting support for the Social Baseline theory!

Written by catthrasher

November 24, 2009 at 9:36 am

Posted in Science

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