A human study of pain avoidance

This 2016 UK human study found:

“People differ in how they learn to avoid pain, with some individuals refraining from actions that resulted in painful outcomes, whereas others favor actions that helped prevent pain.

Learning in our task was best explained as driven by an outcome prediction error that reflects the difference between expected and actual outcomes. Consistent with the expression of such a teaching signal, blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) responses to outcomes in the striatum were modulated by expectation.

Positive learners showed significant functional connectivity between the insula and striatal regions, whereas negative learners showed significant functional connectivity between the insula and amygdala regions.

The degree to which a participant tended to learn from success in avoiding than experiencing shocks was predicted by the structure of a participants’ striatum, specifically by higher gray matter density where the response to shocks was consistent with a prediction error signal. Higher gray matter density in the putamen (and lower gray matter density in the caudate) predicted better learning from shocks and poorer learning from success in avoiding shocks.”

The researchers termed the subjects’ pain responses “learning” instead of conditioning. The experiments presented no 100%-certain choices to avoid pain. The experiments were also rigged to force choices at similar rates among subjects because:

“Participants who learned more from painful outcomes developed a propensity to avoid gambling, whereas participants who learned more from success in preventing pain developed a propensity to gamble.”


Human responses to pain don’t arise out of nowhere. The subjects’ pain histories were clearly relevant, but weren’t investigated. The closest the study came to considering the subjects’ histories was:

“Before the experiment, participants completed an 80-item questionnaire composed of several measures of different mood and anxiety traits. Age, sex and mood and anxiety traits did not differ between participants later classified as positive and negative learners.”

Emotional content was neither included nor solicited. Emotions were inferred:

“Participants biased in favor of passive avoidance learning (i.e., learning what gambles should be avoided), striatal response to painful outcomes was consistent with an aversive prediction error, as seen in fear conditioning.”

As a result, there weren’t causal explanations for the subjects’ differing pain responses. How, when, and why did the behavioral, functional, and structural differences develop?


I didn’t see the level of detail needed to characterize striatal regions into the Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum segments. I’d guess that the findings of “higher gray matter density in the putamen (and lower gray matter density in the caudate)” applied to the posterior putamen and the anterior caudate nucleus.

Two of the coauthors were also coauthors of If a study didn’t measure feelings, then its findings may not pertain to genuine empathy. The technique of Why do we cut short our decision-making process? was referenced.

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/04/06/1519829113.full “Striatal structure and function predict individual biases in learning to avoid pain”

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