The Brain on Pain: Cognitive Appraisal System

Pain also involves a process of cognitive appraisal, whereby we decide (consciously or unconsciously) how significant a sensory signal such as pain is and whether or not we should do something about it. Believe it or not, this is one part of pain processing that is actually subjective.
Professional athletes and runners may process the  “burn” they feel in their muscles as pleasurable and a positive sign of increasing strength and endurance, whereas a new runner may view the same sensation as painful and a reason to stop!

This variation between the sensory and affective aspects of pain have to do with the fact that these two components of pain processing are controlled by two very different structures of the brain. The objective experience of pain intensity or sensation is attributed to the somatosensory cortex, yet the emotional experience of pain is attributed to the anterior cingulate cortex.

In other words, someone with a lower back injury may perceive a sensory signal as warm and tight while another may experience it as a terrible agony, yet in both of these cases, the actual pain intensity is the same. Therefore, personal cognitive appraisal of pain determines whether an experience of pain is unpleasant or just a “pleasant burn” to keep running through. But that’s not all.

Whether or not you believe you can cope with the sensation of pain also plays a role in how intense you may feel a painful experience is.

Similar to the limbic system, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex plays a role in helping us determine the extent to which pain is viewed as controllable and in turn, subjective pain intensity. Moral of the story? If you can convince yourself that you’ll be able to manage the pain (or rather, “pleasant burn”) that comes with running - nothing can stop you from chasing this goal (literally!).

Champion Spotlight

Widely considered to be the greatest sprinter of all time, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt set a world record for the 100m run at an astonishing 9.58 seconds.

But, a little known fact is that Usain Bolt was born with scoliosis, curving his spine to the right and making his right leg almost half an inch shorter than his left.

This hurdle could have very well stopped Usain Bolt from being one of the greatest athletes in the world, but instead he found a way to overcome this obstacle by adjusting his stride (literally!) to accommodate the effects of his scoliosis. Usain Bolt’s personal cognitive appraisal of pain and a determination to overcome it is just one example of how athletes leverage and command pain-related brain processes to achieve incredible obstacle-overcoming victories of athletic triumph! Usain Bolt proves what we already suspected: if you can control how you perceive pain you can manage the extent to which you internalize it. 

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