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Chronic Pain & Sweets

ScienceBlogs explains the research:

“They started with three types of smells: sweet and pleasant (caramel), unsweet and pleasant (after shave), and unpleasant (civet musk, which I hear smells awful). The inclusion of both sweet and unsweet pleasant smells allowed Prescott and Wilkie to distinguish between the analgesic effects of the pleasantness of the smell from that of the sweetness (apparently these two properties had been confounded in previous studies).

The smells were placed on the inside of a mask, which participants were told was used to measure their breathing rate so that they would have no knowledge of the experiment’s purpose. Participants put on the mask, and then placed their hands into a vat of water at 5° Celsius (41° Fahrenheit) for up to 4 minutes. They did this in two trials, separated by 15 minutes, one trial with the smell and one without (they wore the mask for both). The key measure was how long participants kept their hand in the cold water. Prescott and Wilkie also asked them to rate how intense the pain was right after putting their hands in, thirty seconds later, and when they pulled their hands out of the water.”

The results of the study show that specifically the sweet smell helped people tolerate the pain - and that group kept their hands in the water more than twice as long, on average, than the participants in the other two conditions, when the smell was present… The actual, subjective perception of pain did not differ across all three conditions, so it seems that the participants subjectively experienced the same levels of pain, but they were able to tolerate it better when the sweet and pleasant smell was present.

The researchers also hypothesized that the analgesic effects of sweet smells are likely the result of learned associations. Whatever the reason, you might want to try popping a few chocolate chip cookies into the oven, or whatever is sweet that you associate with good things, to make your pain more tolerable.

Posted by: Stephanie

Source: Prescott, J., & Wilkie, J. (2007). Pain tolerance selectively increased by sweet-smelling odor. Psychological Science, 18(4), 308-311.