Pain is often experienced in the context of injury or a pathological process occurring in the body. We describe pain as being in a body part (e.g. “I have a burning pain in my hand”). But pain does not always correspond to processes occurring in the body. Sometimes it continues after injury has healed, or occurs without any apparent pathology. Other times no pain is felt despite clear signs of injury. Finally, our emotions, expectations and thoughts can increase or decrease the amount of pain we feel.
My work aims to understand how the brain and body interact to create the experience of pain, and why some people might be prone to develop pain while others are relatively resilient. I am especially interested in the biological mechanisms that underlie cognitive and affective responses to pain and how this knowledge might help us treat pain.
Towards these goals, my lab takes a multi-disciplinary approach incorporating techniques from psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. Some of the questions we are interested in include:
- Can we use psychophysical and neuroscientific techinques to profile people who are especially vulnerable to pain and steer them towards appropriate treatments?
- How do beliefs such as perceived controllability alter how pain is processed and experienced?
- How is pain unique from other aversive affective experiences? Are similar regulatory processes involved in voluntary regulation of these experiences?
- How does the brain manage the transition from innocuous to aversive levels of sensory input?
- Why are some individuals able to cope with pain while others are unable to maintain normal functioning?
- How does ongoing pain or reduction in ongoing pain change the brain?
- Do people's latent beliefs about pain change how they evaluate the pain of others? If so, can we train people to better understand and evaluate others' pain?
- How do we best measure pain? Do biological tools like fMRI have a role to play in pain assessment?