We don’t need a rocket scientist to tell us that being near family and friends lessens pain, but you may be able to spare your boyfriend the sight of your goopy nose and sweatpants, without going it alone: New studies suggest that photos of your loved ones may be as good as the real thing, acting as painkillers during times of suffering.
The phenomenon was first brought to light in 2009 by psychologist Sarah Master, whose study showed that photos could provide the same pain relief as people. Female patients were administered slight, controlled pain while either holding a stranger’s hand, their boyfriend’s hand, or looking at a photo (either of their boyfriend or a stranger). While strangers had minimal impact on their perception of pain, the women reported the same pain relief from viewing a photo of their significant other as they got from holding their hand.
A recent study, published in the October issue of PLoS One, further explored the way that photos provide pain relief: Stanford neuroscientist Jarred Younger examined the brain activity of patients to find out how photos really relieve pain. Researchers administered differing levels of pain on the palms of subjects’ hands while in MRI machines, and gave them either photos of loved ones, photos of strangers, or mind games to focus on while inside the machines. Those who focused on photos of loved ones and mind games both experienced significant reduction in pain.
But their MRI scans show that photos are better than just any distraction: Unlike mind games, photos of loved ones sparked activity in the brain’s reward centers, and photos of significant others specifically reduced activity in the brain’s major pain-processing centers.
But single ladies need not worry: It’s not just photos of husbands and boyfriends that help resolve pain. Neuroscientist Lucy Brown suggests that photos of any close family or friends will do: “Whether a photo of a boyfriend or girlfriend works better than one of your spouse, child or beloved pet, I’m not so sure,” she says. So load up your smart phone with family photos and set your screen saver to flash pictures of your beau. Not only will you be putting your digital camera to use; you’ll feel better, too.