Since my Mother first told me to “stop crying, it’s only pain”, I’ve always been interested in stories of how we perceive and remember a painful experience.
I’ve heard several theories that suggest that we evolved to suppress memories of unpleasant situations in order to ensure that we kept on hunting ferocious animals or repeated the experience of childbirth, but only today did I learn that experiments have been carried out in order to generate empirical evidence.
In the Freakonomics podcast Painful Lessons, Kai Ryssdal and Stephen J. Dubner report on doctors who trick patients undergoing painful colonoscopy operations in order to alter their memory of the event.
The 2 key lessons they learned are :
- The most painful part of an operation (no matter how short that part is) will define how we recall the entire experience
- The last part of the operation modulates the overall experience. In other words, if it ends on an up-note, then it puts a positive slant on the memory
There’s little they could do for the first point, but by leaving the scope in place (jammed up the patient’s arse) for 2 minutes longer than necessary, ensuring only positive experiences during this final phase resulted in a 22% increase in patient returns. This was particularly important when treating colon cancer, but I guess it’s an interesting lesson for anytime we interact with people…