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See Inside March / April 2011

When Photos Are Painkillers

Looking at a picture of a loved one can dull physical pain

Many mothers offer their young children a hand to squeeze as they brave a vaccination in the doctor’s office. We instinctively know that contact with a loved one can help mitigate pain—and the scientific evidence concurs. Now two recent studies show that a mere reminder of an absent beloved—a photograph—can deliver the same relief.

A Psychological Science study in 2009 first showed the effect. Psychologist Sarah Master of the University California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues studied 25 women and their boyfriends of more than six months. The researchers subjected the women to different degrees of thermal stimulation—a sharp, prickling sensation—as they either held their boyfriend’s hand while he sat behind a curtain, held the hand of a male stranger behind a curtain, viewed a photograph of their boyfriend or viewed a photograph of a male stranger. Holding their partner’s hand or viewing his photo decreased the women’s pain significantly more than touching or viewing a stranger—and the photo was just as effective as the physical contact.

A more recent study in the October issue of PLoS One peered inside the brain to better understand how love soothes pain. Neuroscientist Jarred Younger of Stanford University and his colleagues recruited 15 students who were in the first nine months of a new and passionate relationship. While lying inside a functional MRI machine, the participants focused on photographs of their partners or on pictures of similarly attractive acquaintances, or they played a word association game. During these dis­tractions, the experimenters applied mild, medium or painful temperatures to the students’ palms. Images of attractive acquaintances were not very effective painkillers, but gazing at the faces of significant others and playing the word game reduced reported pain on average between 36 and 44 percent and high pain between 12 and 13 percent.

Only photos of loved ones, however, sparked activity in reward centers within the amygdala, hypothalamus and medial orbitofrontal cortex. The faces of romantic partners also decreased activity in major pain-processing areas, such as the left and right posterior insula. Because the reward centers did not flutter in response to the distracting word game, the researchers argue that the salve of romantic affection is not mere distraction—it is a bliss as potent as that of drugs such as cocaine, which invigorate the same pleasure pathways.

A photograph may not need to show a significant other to produce analgesic effects—any loved one could do, thinks neuroscientist Lucy Brown of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, who was not involved with the study. “Whether a photo of a boyfriend or girlfriend works better than one of your spouse, child or beloved pet, I’m not so sure,” she says. So the next time you have to squeeze into a cramped airplane seat or trudge to work with a bad cold, consider bringing a picture of someone you love to make things more bearable. 

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