We do not enjoy it, but the experience of pain is how the body informs us that we are in danger. The burn when we touch a hot radiator and the sharp stab when we step on a nail lead us to change our behavior, preventing further damage to our bodies. People who cannot experience pain are in serious danger of damage from wounds that others with pain would quickly notice and attend to.
The gate control theory of pain proposes that pain is determined by the operation of two types of nerve fibers in the spinal cord. One set of smaller nerve fibers carries pain from the body to the brain, whereas a second set of larger fibers is designed to stop or start (as a gate would) the flow of pain (Melzack & Wall, 1996). 1 It is for this reason that massaging an area where you feel pain may help alleviate it—the massage activates the large nerve fibers that block the pain signals of the small nerve fibers (Wall, 2000). 2
Experiencing pain is a lot more complicated than simply responding to neural messages, however. It is also a matter of perception. We feel pain less when we are busy focusing on a challenging activity (Bantick, Wise, Ploghaus, Clare, Smith, & Tracey, 2002), 3 which can help explain why sports players may feel their injuries only after the game. We also feel less pain when we are distracted by humor (Zweyer, Velker, & Ruch, 2004). 4 And pain is soothed by the brain’s release of endorphins, natural hormonal pain killers. The release of endorphins can explain the euphoria experienced in the running of a marathon (Sternberg, Bailin, Grant, & Gracely, 1998). 5
- The ability to taste, smell, and touch are important because they help us avoid harm from environmental toxins.
- The many taste buds on our tongues and inside our mouths allow us to detect six basic taste sensations: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, piquancy, and umami.
- In olfaction, transduction occurs as airborne chemicals that are inhaled through the nostrils are detected by receptors in the olfactory membrane. Different chemical molecules fit into different receptor cells, creating different smells.
- On average, women have a better sense of smell than men, and the ability to smell diminishes with age.
- We have a range of different nerve endings embedded in the skin, combinations of which respond to the four basic sensations of pressure, hot, cold, and pain. But only the sensation of pressure has its own specialized receptors.
- Proprioception is our ability to sense the positions and movements of our body parts. Postural and movement information is detected by special neurons located in the skin, joints, bones, ears, and tendons, which pick up messages from the compression and the contraction of muscles throughout the body.
- The vestibular system, composed of structures in the inner ear, monitors the head’s position and movement, maintaining the body’s balance.
- Gate control theory explains how large and small neurons work together to transmit and regulate the flow of pain to the brain.
EXERCISES AND CRITICAL THINKING
- Think of the foods that you like to eat the most. Which of the six taste sensations do these foods have, and why do you think that you like these particular flavors?
- Why do you think that women might have a better developed sense of smell than do men?
- Why is experiencing pain a benefit for human beings?