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Well-integrated pain observers modulate aversive arousal through late top-down neural processes

By Robin Caryn Rabin

Can looking at the photograph of a loved one make pain go away? Numerous studies show that strong social connections have benefits for health. People who have active social lives seem to live longer than those who are isolated, and married cancer patients have a better outlook than divorced cancer patients. Now, a study suggests that merely looking at a photograph of a loved one can relieve the sensation of physical pain.

Psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, recruited 25 women who had steady boyfriends. Using a tool that applied heat to the women’s forearms, they turned up the temperature until it was slightly uncomfortable and asked the women to rate the pain they experienced on a scale of one to 20.

The researchers manipulated the heat and recorded the women’s reactions under different conditions: while she was looking at a photo of her boyfriend, or a photo of a complete stranger and a chair. They also had the women rate the pain while they held the hand of a stranger hidden behind a curtain, and as they held their boyfriend’s hand or a squeeze ball.

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