from the world's big
Increasing numbers of people are in pain. How do we cope?
A new study reminds us that physical and emotional pain are not far apart.
- Physical and emotional pain are not that distinct, given that both are routed through a single brain region.
- A new study at NYU shows that physical pain can lessen the effects of depression and emotional duress.
- Holistic methods for dealing with both physical and emotional pain should be considered.
Pain is one of the most confusing aspects of human physiology. From an evolutionary perspective, pain is either a signal that something is wrong (broken bone; stomachache) or a cautionary tale informing us to not repeat an activity (touching a hot stove). Pain often resolves when the noxious stimulus is removed—the form of pain related to tissue damage. Then we enter the world of emotional pain, which itself is intimately related to physical pain.
Let's begin with the physical. You stub your toe, immediately sending a signal up your spinal cord to your frontal anterior cingular cortex (ACC), which assess the meaning of this pain. The ACC plays an important role in error detection, noting the distance between what you expected (you were walking to the bathroom) and what occurred (your foot caught the edge of your bed frame because you were staring at your phone). Tissue damage has indeed occurred. It hurts.
An interesting study placed subjects in a brain scanner tossing a ball with two other (virtual) people. After a while, those players decide to stop throwing to you. You've been outcast and the rejection stings. Your ACC activates. As Robert Sapolsky writes, "as far those neurons in the ACC are concerned, social and literal pain are the same."
The ACC activates when you get an electric shock. Incredibly, if you watch a friend get shocked, the same region fires. We call this empathy, the ability to perceive what another is feeling, yet this goes a step further: you actually feel their pain. Sapolsky notes that both dread and depression can be physically felt. Research has shown that ibuprofen alleviates emotional pain as well (in women, at least).
Pain management is one of the hardest aspects of medicine. Diagnosing disease from the perspective of pain alone is challenging. When I broke my femur the emergency room doctor knew exactly what had happened. Yet how many different ailments begin with a stomachache or a headache?
Then there's our relationship to pain. We live in the most comfortable age in the history of our species. We're also under the illusion that a pill can dissolve pain, be it physical or emotional, by blocking neurotransmission of specific chemicals. Pain alleviation is a great feature of modern medicine, yet when you create a society expectant of constant relief you cheat its citizens from important lessons about the nature of physiology. Many of our pain relief efforts, from antidepressants to aspirin, are driven by profit maximization, not compassion.
While a number of techniques for alleviating pain exist, without an honest and open discussion about the nature of pain people find their own methods. A new study published in the journal Emotion has found that the intentional onset of physical pain (cutting, for example) helps people deal with emotional distress. It also clues us in to the conceptual world of pain.
Ashley Doukas at NYU Langone Health conducted this research after she studied body-based coping mechanisms such as deep breathing and smiling. The clinical instructor says,
"I became interested in the topic of pain because a great deal of the literature on non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) indicates that one reason people engage in self-injurious behavior is to regulate extreme emotional states."
Doukas noticed that even healthy controls felt better emotionally after experiencing physical pain. It's hard for your brain to focus on two forms of pain simultaneously. On top of this is hormesis, an internal form of vaccination: a little bit of a toxin makes you stronger. In exercise studies, this is similar to purposefully tearing your muscles after lifting weights, a process that ultimately makes them stronger. The neurological reaction runs parallel: while you struggle with increasing loads during workouts, you feel better for hours after (if not a bit sore).
Nick Kyrgios of Australia feels the pain during his fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on day eight of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images
For the study, Doukas and team recruited 60 test subjects to look at upsetting images. They were then provided with four methods of coping, two cognitive and two physical. The cognitive methods were distracting yourself with another thought or mentally changing the meaning of the image. As for physical means, subjects could self-administer an electric shock, either painful or painless.
Over the course of 16 trials, two-thirds (67.5 percent) of volunteers self-administered at least one painful electric shock. The average was two per person, with 13 being at the high end. Doukas hopes that this information helps to de-stigmatize those who purposefully engage in painful behavior to deal with emotional duress.
"While of course we do not want people to put themselves at risk for infection or accidental death, the fact is that human beings use pain to manage their emotions all the time — think of an intense massage to relax, and putting extra hot sauce on tacos to make them more intense and enjoyable. While the injurious aspect of NSSI can be alarming to many, the infliction of pain on oneself may not be inherently pathological, and may actually be making good use of some basic biological responses to pain, such as endorphins."
We often discuss the brain-body connection as if they're separate domains. We can actually witness the workings of that connection in the form of our nervous system. Everyone recognizes that injury can lead to depression while heartache can result in the manifestation of physical disease. If cutting seems a strange choice for dealing with stress or anxiety, remember that for roughly 2,000 years bloodletting was the go-to by doctors for a variety of ailments.
This is not a call for sanctioned cutting. We know that in most cases draining blood from your body is the opposite of healing. Yet we're also aware that the distance between physical and emotional pain is not far. Creating a holistic pain management paradigm moving forward would be in our best interests. While some region-specific remedies are important, epidemics such as with opioids, depression, and obesity show that we are not managing pain well.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.
Women today are founding more businesses than ever. In 2018, they made up 40% of new entrepreneurs, yet in that same year, they received just 2.2% of all venture capital investment. The playing field is off-balance. So what can women do?
In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.