Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"It hurts when I do this (or you do that): Posture and pain tolerance"

I linked to this paper earlier this week on Facebook (link to Facebook thread) because something about it made me stop and think.
Abstract: Recent research (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010) has shown that adopting a powerful pose changes people's hormonal levels and increases their propensity to take risks in the same ways that possessing actual power does. In the current research, we explore whether adopting physical postures associated with power, or simply interacting with others who adopt these postures, can similarly influence sensitivity to pain. We conducted two experiments. In Experiment 1, participants who adopted dominant poses displayed higher pain thresholds than those who adopted submissive or neutral poses. These findings were not explained by semantic priming. In Experiment 2, we manipulated power poses via an interpersonal interaction and found that power posing engendered a complementary (Tiedens & Fragale, 2003) embodied power experience in interaction partners. Participants who interacted with a submissive confederate displayed higher pain thresholds and greater handgrip strength than participants who interacted with a dominant confederate.
My comment there was, "Huh! Non-nociceptive induction of pain. I like the psychosocial angle this paper takes. Strictly visual signaling can sensitize the salience or threat detection system. If this is valid and that's the case, is it any wonder that women seem to have more chronic "pain" than men?"

Chronic pain is experienced by more women than men. Pain is experienced differently by women than it is by men. Pain experienced by people less advantaged socioeconomically is experienced as more disabling. Women are generally less advantaged socio-economically.   

The idea of considering a "salience" system, as opposed to a "pain" system, is important. One of my favorite papers of all time is The pain matrix reloaded: A salience detection system for the body, by Legrain et al, who argue that if a wasp comes toward you and you think it's going to sting you, you will instinctively try to swat it prior to any nociception ever having had to occur. 

Here is the entry for "dominance" in the non-verbal dictionary at Center for non-verbal studies (a great link, by the way - hours of fun and learning.)

An external dominance display travels immediately to the threat detection system via the visual cortex, and the salience network notices. If it's an internally generated dominance display, i.e., one produced by the organism itself, the salience system gets the news via other channels maybe, gets the idea that all is well, I guess. Check out Todd Hargrove's blogpost, Posture and Pain Tolerance, about the same paper. Todd says, 
In the first experiment, participants who assumed a dominant posture displayed higher pain tolerance than those in submissive postures. 
In the second experiment, subjects had differing strength and pain tolerance levels depending on whether they interacted with a partner who used either dominant or submissive posturing. 
For example, if a subject was paired with a partner with dominant body language, this encouraged the subject to adopt a submissive posture in response, which made him weaker and less pain tolerant. 
Remember this next time you hire a buff alpha male as a personal trainer.
My bold.
As a PT, I was taught "good" posture, to be on the lookout for "bad" posture, and to try to "correct" the posture of almost every patient who came to see me. This was going to help them, or so I was led to believe. Not that "poor" posture actually caused, or correction thereof ever really fixed, any actual pain problems. Lots of people with already "good" posture had lots of pain too. To me, this story about psychosocial aspects of posture and pain absolutely destroys "misbehaving meat" heuristic conjecture about posture&pain, entirely.

The whole thing about our being primates is very relevant: as a short female human primate my psychosocial reality is I've been physically subordinate to most people all my life. What I've learned recently about personally inhabiting this kind of humanantigravitysuit, especially as it ages, is that anger is useful against, can even vanquish entirely, pain. (Pain associated with frozen shoulder at least.) Maybe an interoceptive, turned-inward sense of anger naturally builds from frustration of life lived in a world full of taller, and therefore by visual default, more (potentially) dominant people; if extraverted perhaps it turns into short man syndrome, or small dog agressionPerhaps anger is valuable for maintaining a sense of well-being, on an organism level. Clearly subordinate individuals must have to suppress most outward display of any internal anger they may have if they don't want to be killed by the rest of the troop or pack, or in the case of humans, separated from one troop and put in jail with another kind. Clearly humans have to learn how to find inner strength, yet remain humble, remain harmless, remain interactive.  Most figure it out one way or another. 
As a therapist, I never go there. Wading into peoples' feelings. As a therapist, I do not encourage expression of emotion. (I don't suppress it if it comes up, but my kind of therapy has nothing to do with trying to elicit it in others.) I do not want to be in anyone's line of fire; I grew up with a physically abusive (at times) mother, and was attacked once by a very cranky dachshund who dashed out of his yard through his gate at me, while I innocently walked by his house, on the public sidewalk. I've spent a lifetime dealing with, dancing with, trying to understand and harness anger, in myself. I do not want to deal with it in other people in any way whatsoever, especially not as a therapist. Yet, wow. I discovered my own anger to be so extremely useful, so ready to help me, when I had horrid pain. And I found it relatively easy to engage and use effectively in the presence of a therapist, without freaking her out.  So I guess my opinion is, save it til you really need it for something. 

To women, on a biological level, and on much.. OK, most of the human psychosocial level, it's a man's world. Yet.. 
This morning as I rode the elliptical, in front of the movie, Australia, which I've now seen 30-minute chunks of often enough to be able to remember them better, a thought crossed my mind during the scene where Drover arrives unexpectedly to the ball, just as Lady Ashley is right on the brink of signing her cattle ranch over to the appropriately-named robber cattle baron, Carney; "Drover" (the dashing male lead played by flashes-his-12-pack-during-the-movie Hugh Jackman)  who apparently cleans up well, appears at the top of the stair all decked out in a (impossibly!) perfectly tailored suit, just in the nick of time to save the day, the ranch, the lady, and have a bit of inner revenge on the snob bunch by impressing them all with his looks and ability to fox trot after only one drunken lesson out on the range. 
For the one and only time in the whole long movie, he is completely clean-shaven. 
Interesting (I thought as I huffed and puffed): men who shave appear much less dominating to female human primates; men who want to get close to women, without intimidating them by default, shave their faces. They try to make themselves look more like us. I've read there are fish that do the same thing, mimic the appearance of girl fish, and end up mating, having more offspring, or something. It even has a name: inter-sexual mimicry


Ole Reidar Johansen said...

Hireing a big buff alpha male is different than being "paired" with one. When hireing, either as a trainer or a bodyguard you get to show the world that you control that thing with your money. Me thinks.

Diane Jacobs said...

Good point Ole.