You have to love scientists. Diligently they toil away at their abstruse projects, oblivious to such important issues as war and peace and terrorism and who’s going to win the Kyushu Basho. We pay them next to nothing, ignore their pointy-headed little reports and cheer them on only when they score the occasional Nobel Prize for work that nobody understands, thus making the whole country look more intelligent. But once in a while they come up with a winner, something we can not only grasp right away but can even imagine putting to good use in our own lives.
Such was the finding by a group of German researchers, presented last week at a Florida neuroscience conference, that people who suffer chronic pain actually feel worse — and complain more, too — when their spouses comfort them than they do when they’re ignored. Distract or neglect the sufferer, and he (or maybe even she) will literally feel less pain. Mollycoddle him, and he’ll writhe all the more. “I am fascinated by this,” responded one California scientist, described in news reports as an expert in “the neurobiology of pain.”
Well, we should think so. It doesn’t take a pain neurobiologist to see that this announcement is fascinating on a number of levels.
First, it tells us a great deal about the everyday lives of German research scientists. As a species, they clearly don’t have enough to do, and their domestic lives are no picnic, either. How else would they have dreamed up their breakthrough experiment if some or all of them had not been saddled with petulant back patients for spouses and had not had too much time on their hands in the lab? Probably they hung out there a lot as a way of avoiding the pain-ridden spouse at home.
Then one of them noticed that, lo! whenever he or she left the room, the afflicted spouse complained much less. Most people might have thought this was because, having left, the researcher could no longer hear the spouse. But most people are not German research scientists. If they were, they not only would have left well enough alone; they also would have asked themselves whether this might mean that the invalid actually felt less pain?
This leads to the second fascinating aspect of the story: the experiment itself. What, you ask, did the researchers actually do? Simple. They assembled 20 obviously unsuspecting couples, in each of which one partner suffered from chronic back pain. Ten patients described their spouses as solicitous and loving during bad pain bouts; the other 10 said their spouses typically changed the subject or left the room when things got bad. The researchers then administered “painful electric shocks” to the patients’ aching backs in the presence of their spouses and monitored their resulting brain activity to measure how much pain they felt.
It would be nice to read that the patients then rose up as one from their gurneys and administered painful blows to the researchers, but that didn’t happen. They lay there, stunned, while the researchers coldly observed that those with doting spouses present experienced almost three times more pain than those who were accompanied by their indifferent spouses.
Just to head off nitpicking questions about whether neglect might be a useful treatment for any pain, not just the chronic kind, the scientists then zapped the unfortunate patients in the finger. To their torturers’ mild surprise, all 20 found this to be equally painful, no matter what kind of spouses they had. So don’t tell your children to grin and bear it when they come running home with their cuts and bruises. It won’t help.
Not to worry. There is plenty of new information here we can usefully apply. The neuroscientists in Florida spoke eloquently about the advantage of knowing that “a social variable” (techno-speak for the presence of a spouse) can influence the brain’s response to pain. The public knows better. The advantage lies in knowing that if our spouses fall victim to chronic pain, it is not just permissible, it is our medical duty, to ignore them when they whine and to walk out on them if they keep it up. If we don’t, we will be guilty of “enabling” their pain. If, on the other hand, we are ourselves in pain, we now know exactly what to do to feel better: Tell those hovering, hand-wringing ninnies to go away and leave us alone. The relief that has thus been made available to all parties could be instrumental in saving numerous shaky marriages from Florida to Fukuoka.
There’s a bonus, too. Should a recalcitrant spouse fail to cooperate at any time, we can feel quite justified in stabbing him or her in the finger. It’s known as the scientific method.
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