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Pain, Explained

A new study suggests that pain should be seen as a complex interplay of elements that form an experience called pain.

Man massaging sore ankle


You hit your thumb with a hammer. And you swear. That’s pain. It’s that simple. Or is it? Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have proposed that we need to rethink how we view pain. It’s not a one-time thing, they say, but rather a multi-layered event that involves both physical and psychological components.

Past studies have shown that pain activates two structures in the brain—the anterior insula and the cingulated cortex—and this holds true whether you’re the one actually experiencing pain or if you’re feeling empathy for someone else in pain. But scientists have disagreed whether these two forms of pain are really the same, despite the similarity in brain activity. The neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute took a different tack. “We need to get away from this either-or question, whether the pain is genuine or not,” wrote Tania Singer, the institute’s director.

They propose that pain should be seen as a complex interplay of elements that form an experience called pain. This would include the pain stimulus, like stepping on a piece of glass, but also the emotional process, like the negative feelings you have while stepping on the glass, and the information your brain stores for later, like how to avoid that glass in the future.

A study out from other scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the University of Geneva, supported this theory. They were able to show that during a painful experience, those two parts of the brain—the anterior insula and cingulate cortex—can process general information like if an experience is unpleasant, as well as less direct information, such as that pain, not disgust or indignation, are involved, and whether the pain is direct or empathetic. It’s all starting to sound like the movie “Inside Out,” don’t you think?

Having this theory should be comforting to people who are suffering, as they can more thoroughly see a relationship between the physical and psychological factors in pain. And, “the fact that our brain processes pain and other unpleasant events simultaneously for the most part, no matter if they are experienced by us or someone else, is very important for social interactions,” wrote Anita Tusche a neuroscientist involved in the study, “because it helps to us understand what others are experiencing.”  

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!

Kathryn Drury Wagner

Spirituality & Health’s Wellness Editor, Kathryn Drury Wagner, is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle. 

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