“Look away!” Maybe not… Or… Do we want bigger hands or bigger needles?

"Look away or look at?” That is the question...

“Look away!” has traditionally been the way to cope with pain that is ‘inflicted’ upon us. Having an injection is as obvious example but there are others such as removing a splinter or wiping a wound. Research about how the brain manages pain was carried out by the University College London (UCL) and the University of Milan-Bicocca research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and it may well indicate that looking away may not be the most effective way of managing the pain and in fact to look ‘at’ may well be more effective.

The researchers carried out an intriguing experiment whereby they applied a probe to the skin of the volunteers. The probe’s temperature gradually rose until the pain experienced by the volunteers was too much to bear (they removed the probe at that point!). The experiment was carried out two ways: in one experiment the volunteers could clearly see their hand and in the second experiment their hand’s view was blocked by a piece of wood. What was so remarkable was that the team found that volunteers could tolerate on average 3 degrees C more heat when they were able to look at their hand compared with when they couldn’t see their hand (their hand was obscured by a block of wood).

Professor Haggard, who carried out the research, said, “You always advise children not to look [at the needle] when they are having an injection or a blood sample taken, but we have found that looking at the body is analgesic – just looking at the body reduces pain levels. Professor Haggard went on to say, “So my advice would be to look at your arm, but try to avoid seeing the needle – if that’s possible.”

Professor Haggard also carried out an experiment whereby through the use of convex mirrors the researchers could increase or decrease the perceived size of the volunteer’s own hand in the mind of the volunteer. Once more the researchers applied a probe and increased the temperature of the probe until the volunteers felt it too painful to carry on. Interestingly, if the researchers made the perceived hand look larger the volunteers’ pain threshold increased: they could tolerate more pain and conversely if they made the hand look smaller the volunteers’ pain threshold decreased.

What might the reasons be for this? In Professor Haggard’s experiment it wasn’t the volunteer’s hand that was administering the pain but the needle applied by the researcher. In life application what can happen is that we focus on the ‘problem’ (the needle) rather than ways of managing a solution (focusing on ‘the hand’). Whatever we focus on gets bigger and we want the solution to get bigger (for example to have a more robust solution; for a strategy to be clearer in our mind; to be more able to cope in a time of crisis etc.) and not the problem.

How can this be applied to me?

Simply put do you want bigger hands or bigger needles? If you find yourself focusing on the ‘needles’ in life rather than ‘hands’ then may be this strategy will work for you. With regard to whatever is being affected start by focusing on that and disregard (literally, don’t look at) what is doing the affecting. Imagine making the affected part bigger. You may well find that your threshold to cope is increased as a result. Then, give yourself permission to come up with possible solutions. Be creative, and be determined too.

Please let me know if you try this strategy and how you handle the solution! Share your experiments by posting a comment below.