What happens when you feel pain in your brain?

What happens when you feel pain in your brain?


Cross-section of a human head, showing location of the hypothalamus.

The research study, Buffer the Pain Away, attempts to be the first to provide the evidence necessary to establish a causal relationship between rVLPFC activity and the feelings of social pain. rVLPFC, or the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain is “associated with the regulation of pain (Riva et al., 2012).” Knowing this, the authors hypothesized that stimulating the rVLPFC reduces the pain response to social exclusion and sought to find out in the trials if the relationship can be proven through a number of participants. In the experimental study, the participants, who were young, Italian students, played a virtual ball-tossing game that would purposely induce feelings of inclusion and exclusion in different players.

Additionally, half of the participants were provided an electric current that would target their rVLPFC, thus manipulating their regulation of pain during the game, while the other half was in the control group, meaning that none of them was stimulated by the current throughout the ball-tossing game even though they were led to believe they were. By setting up the study in this manner, the authors were able to collect data from stimulated/unstimulated and included/excluded groups without the participants knowing what was being tested. After the ball game, the participants were asked questions about their “general unpleasantness” and how “socially excluded” they felt. Their responses were compiled to produce the results of the study. 

Neurons generate electrical signals that travel along their axons. When a pulse of electricity reaches a junction called a synapse, it causes a neurotransmitter chemical to be released, which binds to receptors on other cells and thereby alters their electrical activity.

Due to the differing presences of the electric currents, the independent variable is the stimulation of the rVLPFC. Furthermore, in the virtual ball game, certain participants were targeted more to feel excluded, which introduces another IV. The two dependent variables were the answers to the two questions that the researchers collected from the participants after the game.

Because the stimulation of the rVLPFC influenced the way that participants reacted and answered the questions at the end of the study, a causal relationship can likely be attributed to the different experiences that the groups had. Understanding that the rVLPFC directly affects the way that people experience social exclusion or inclusion helps psychology not only establish a connection between a specific region of our brain and our internal thoughts but also begins brainstorming ideas that may one day help those who experience social exclusion regularly. 

The brain of a shark.

The biggest strength of the study is that the setup is very simple and that there is not a lot of room for confusion among the participants. All the participants have to do is get hooked up to the electric current and then play the ball game, meaning that there isn’t that much room for variance in their individual experiences within the study. The ball game is also simple and shouldn’t introduce much bias between different people. Because the game consists of just passing the ball around, it is pretty clear who is being included and excluded. 

The simplicity of the study is a strength because the fewer complications in the actions of the participants, the fewer opportunities there are to introduce confounding variables that may muddle the findings of the study. The contents of the study are easy to digest for the reader and the participants can easily follow the rules of the study without overthinking or messing up. 

One of the limitations of the study is that the sample size should be larger and more diversified, if possible. While 79 participants is a large number, carrying out the study on a larger scale could also provide more credibility. Furthermore, because the participants were all Italian students, there may be societal reasons or environmental factors that should be accounted for in a ball game. If the study was done again on a larger scale, it would be interesting to see how people from different regions of the world or different walks of life would perform

The biggest limitation is that participants are using their subjective ratings to answer the questions about the ball-tossing game. The scales that participants were measured on included vague measurements to an already vague question. The questions of the “general unpleasantness” and “to what degree [the participants] felt four emotions” is impossible to precisely answer and will vary depending on the participant’s attitude, thoughts, etc. 

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The subjective answers are a big limitation because putting feelings into quantifiable values is very difficult, so perhaps the researchers would have more reliable data if the participants were made to compare the unpleasantness or their emotions with other experiences. The relative experiences of the participants would be difficult to convert into quantifiable data as well, but the randomness of the numbers on a 1-to-10 scale doesn’t appear to be precise, either. While the participants’ numbers likely averaged out, the questions and the ratings still introduced variance that was not accounted for and readers cannot be sure that every participant had similar 1-to-10 scales. 

Moreover, the findings of the study are important in helping map out the brain, which is very complex and still holds many unknowns. Continuing to unravel the mysteries of the brain will allow for more subsequent findings and treatments to be discovered for the pain from social exclusion, specifically regarding the connection between the pain response and the rVLPFC as found in the study. The researchers cite that “just as tDCS can be used to treat long-term experiences of physical pain, the current findings suggest possible treatments to reduce the negative consequences of chronic feelings of social exclusion (Riva et al., 2012).”

While the authors and the findings imply that tDCS, the stimulating current used in the study, is a temporary buffer for the pain that social exclusion brings individuals, there are surely more treatments to come in the future that psychologists can begin to research with the help of further experimental studies like Buffer the Pain Away.

Written by Jiming Xu


What happens when you feel pain in your brain?

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What happens when you feel pain in your brain?