Our upcoming Illusions article for Scientific American: Mind concerns pain. What is a pain illusion, you may ask? Broadly speaking, there are two main categories: you feel pain when you shouldn’t (for instance, in the absence of physical damage) or you don’t experience pain when you should (despite substantial physical damage). This last week, by coincidence, I read The Princess Bride (I had seen the movie when it came out in 1987, but forgotten most of it). The novel is a wonderful read, but something that I hadn’t expected is that the plot would revolve so much around the topic of pain, both psychological and physical. As in death, torture, mutilation, and the loss of true love. The treatment of pain was quite sophisticated, in addition, especially for a “classic tale of true love and high adventure”. (I supposed we shouldn’t be too shocked since the writer, William Goldman, also wrote Marathon Man, with the infamous dental drill torture scene that plumbs the depths of pain and dental despair). As an example, a main character describes pain as “the most underrated emotion”, a concept both provocative and controversial in contemporary neuroscience. The influence of (in)attention on pain perception is another topic in which The Princess Bride antecedes current findings in cognitive science. Recent research shows that burn victims can ignore the pain of daily treatments by focusing their attention on a virtual reality game depicting a snowy wonderland. Westley (aka Farm Boy aka Dread Pirate Roberts) took away his brain from his burning hands (dipped in oil and set aflame by his torturers) by contemplating Princess Buttercup’s wintry skin.
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