Lecture Me! On pain and the social brain
Dr. Loren Martin discusses research based on emotional contagion and social interactions.

As a neuroscientist, Dr. Loren Martin uses models to understand neural circuits and molecular changes to minor nerve responses and pain receptors in the human brain. He opened his Lecture Me! series by discussing vision and optical illusions and their impacts on brain activity. 

“The brain is a fascinating organ that operates on a peripheral range, and depending on the amount and type of information it receives, it changes and modifies what is shown to us,” explained Dr. Martin. “Think of it as a puzzle. You start with one small piece, and it’s kind of hard to tell what the final product is supposed to be. But once you start piecing things together, the bigger picture comes into view. That’s kind of how the brain works.” 

Dr. Martin is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). His research focuses on behavioural neuroscience, pain, stress, social interactions, emotional contagion, and empathy. Recently, he’s been studying the relationship between the brain, pain, and social interactions. Dr. Martin discussed how pain receptors function and how our brain interprets different forms of information: “We have specialized receptors in our skin [which can detect potential injury and/or harm], which… send signals into our brain to change and modify our understanding of pain.”

In other words, pain is not just a feeling but it’s also a way our body communicates through nerves and receptors. How do we know something is painful? According to Dr. Martin, pain revolves around different types of experiences, and there are multiple factors that affect our understanding of pain: it could be something we experience ourselves or could be heavily influenced by how we see others experience it. This creates a picture of what that could feel like for ourselves.

Dr. Martin discussed the different types of scenarios revolving pain; where pain is not only physical, but it invokes an emotional, psychological, and social response. 

Sometimes pain is altered based on our circumstances. “If you expect something to hurt, it’s going to hurt. Our bodies are equipped to detect threats, such as a hot stove—if you can feel the heat, your body braces itself for pain and it initiates a response to move your hand away [based on instinct],” he explains. When we anticipate pain, it’s almost as if our minds and bodies brace themselves for how painful something might be. If you keep telling yourself something is going to hurt, your expectations amplify the emotion—almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy—when in reality it might not hurt as much as you expected it to. 

Another situation of pain is when our brain alerts our body to take precautions and be careful against personal danger. This creates an uneasiness within us, especially when we don’t understand the threat of the situation and how it can impact us. This is also shown in public situations with groups of people or communities and shapes what influences people’s response rate. “Sometimes it’s a matter of do they choose to help you? Or is the situation too much that it invokes the behaviour of running away as a response?” How people choose to respond in certain situations is what creates this contagion, because it also influences other people’s behaviour based on the normal response. It’s almost as if we must decide whether helping someone is worth it—even if we are unsure what that threat could do to us. This is shown in our daily lives, like whenever there is a fight in public. Is our instinct to help people, watch, or walk away so we don’t get involved? 

Social context also influences how we see pain, as it is possible to share pain with other individuals without experiencing it firsthand. “When you see a loved one going through a painful experience, it invokes pain in ourselves—and this is because the core of our beings is rooted in empathy,” explained Dr. Martin. “Altered pain processing involves psychological factors, which can modify our biological process.” This gives insight into the social bonds and relationships we have with people, and how that can psychologically influence the brain in how we process information in front of us. 

Pain instigates empathy, sympathy, or care in observers. If you are around people who experience sadness, joy, fear, disgust, or anger, then this can influence your response to situations as well. Behaviours are constantly being affected by environments and surroundings, and depending on who you surround yourselves with, this can affect your emotions and behavioural responses. 

Dr. Martin then brought up an important question: Can pain be contagious?

“Well, pain is categorized as both a sensory experience and emotional experience. When we think of situations where we see people in pain, or where they are struggling, it can be hard to generate shared empathy, especially on the Internet,” said Dr. Martin. “It is not because people are deemed heartless or the fact they don’t care, but it is difficult to share love or concern for people we have never met or have no understanding […]. It creates opportunities to reflect that if something has never happened to us, it is hard to imagine what that might be like for someone else.” 

Dr. Martin and his colleagues conducted testing on human participants through a cold pressor test, where participants would submerge their hand in extremely cold water for around 30 seconds, and then rate their pain. In terms of measuring their pain, they observed three separate conditions: those who were friends, those who were strangers, and those who played a video game together. They found that those who were strangers showed a blocked stress response, whereas those who knew each other or collaborated showed more intense signs of pain or shared pain responses.

Dr. Martin’s research introduces how empathy and social interactions can coexist and work together to establish community and create meaningful impacts on how we interpret pain and painful experiences. “Sociological and psychological factors are able to manipulate and change the context of pain, depending on our environment and circumstances. It creates discourse on how we view pain from an individualistic approach to a community-based approach, which inherently can change the trajectory of how we view pain, how to treat pain, and how to live with pain,” Dr. Martin concluded.

Associate Features Editor (Volume 50) — Pamela is a U of T alumni with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and minored in East Asian Studies and Italian Studies. She is currently studying at Humber College to be a UX Designer. She was previously the Marketing Manager for On the Danforth Magazine, and even wrote a blog article about "4 Cafés to Visit on the Danforth" (2021). When she's not writing or studying, you can catch her crocheting, designing her bullet journal, and streaming video games. Her favourite games are Valorant, Stardew Valley, and Teamfight Tactics. Pamela loves to write and tries to put creativity at the forefront of everything she does. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram.


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