Thermosensory intensity and affect throughout the perceptible range

Somatosens Mot Res. 2003;20(1):19-26. doi: 10.1080/0899022031000083807.


The thermosensory system was evaluated psychophysically in 12 healthy volunteers, spanning the full range of tolerable temperatures. Subjects provided ratings of (1) perceived thermal intensity, (2) perceived pleasantness or unpleasantness, and (3) perceived pain intensity after placing either one hand or foot in a temperature controlled water bath. Of particular interest were the interrelationships among the three perceptual measures, and differences between heat and cold. The relationship between perceived intensity and (un)pleasantness was different for hot vs cold stimuli. Specifically, for a given perceived thermal intensity, cold stimuli were rated as less pleasant or more unpleasant than hot stimuli. Similarly, for a given pain intensity, cold stimuli were rated as more unpleasant than hot stimuli. As warm temperatures increased and as cold temperatures decreased, stimuli were perceived as being unpleasant before they were perceived as being painful. The difference in transition temperatures for unpleasantness vs pain for heat averaged 1.4 degrees C, while the same difference for cold averaged 5.6 degrees C. Thus, there was a fourfold difference in the range of unpleasant but non-painful cold vs hot temperatures. Pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings were significantly higher for heat stimuli applied to the foot vs hand. In contrast, there was no significant body site difference for pain intensity or unpleasantness ratings of cold stimuli. All of these results reveal important differences in the processing of cold vs hot stimuli. These differences could be exploited to differentiate processing relevant to discriminative vs affective components of somesthetic perception, in both the innocuous and noxious ranges.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cold Temperature
  • Female
  • Foot / innervation
  • Foot / physiology
  • Hand / innervation
  • Hand / physiology
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain Measurement
  • Thermoreceptors / physiology*