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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

Child Face on display at McGuffey Art Center

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Child Face Tryptic

I am currently exhibiting a series of photographs as part of an art-science collaboration with Vanessa LoBue, Ph.D., and the Child Study Center at U.Va. The show will be up through Nov. 22nd at McGuffey Art Center in Charlottesville.

These pictures were originally made for a stimulus set intended for use in scientific studies. The children in these photographs exhibit specific combinations of muscle movements that are reliably characteristic of adult displays of emotion in empirical research.

Some expressions appear to transcend age, others inspire more questions: though it is easy—almost expected—to see a child expressing happiness, it is harder to observe the contradiction between the seemingly weathered intensity of negative expressions and the purity inherent in the facial characteristics of children. Do these expressions draw us in out of concern, or repel us by activating our own fears? Perhaps harder still is the observation of a child emoting nothing at all. What is going on behind those inscrutable faces?

For this series, I strove to highlight the range and complexity of human emotion, as well as the range and complexity inherent in our own responses to these expressions.

Child Face

Nov. 2nd-22nd

Opening Reception Nov. 6th, 5:30-7:30pm

McGuffey Art Center

201 2nd St. SW

Charlottesville, VA 22902

Written by catthrasher

November 4, 2009 at 4:17 am