Let it be? Pain control attempts critically amplify attention to somatosensory input

Psychol Res. 2017 Jan;81(1):309-320. doi: 10.1007/s00426-015-0712-7. Epub 2015 Sep 29.


Recent studies have suggested that the threat of pain may redirect attention towards specific features of the pain stimulus via attentional control settings. For instance, it has been shown that anticipating pain results in attentional prioritization of the location where pain is expected. In contemporary theories on attention and pain, it has been argued that pain control motivation-e.g., attempting to avoid pain-is capable of enhancing these effects. The present study investigated if the threat of pain prioritizes attention towards somatosensory input over other sensory information, and if pursuing a pain control goal augments this effect. In a Temporal Order Judgment experiment, 41 participants were presented with visuo-tactile stimulus pairs and asked to judge which stimulus they had perceived first. Half of all trials were associated with the threat of acute pain, while the other half was not. Furthermore, half of our sample was encouraged to avoid the administration of pain by means of a specified behavioral response, whereas the other half was not. In line with our hypotheses, we found the threat of pain to prioritize attention towards the somatosensory modality, i.e., participants tended to perceive the tactile stimulus as occurring earlier in time than the visual stimulus. Interestingly, in-depth analyses suggested that this effect was predominantly carried by participants who were engaged in pain control efforts. These findings support the idea that pain goals exert top-down attentional control prioritizing pain-relevant sensory information. Clinical relevance and future directions are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attentional Bias*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Touch Perception*
  • Visual Perception
  • Young Adult