The disruptive effects of pain on complex cognitive performance and executive control

Edmund Keogh, David J. Moore, Geoffrey B. Duggan, Stephen J. Payne, Christopher Eccleston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Citations (SciVal)


Pain interferes and disrupts attention. What is less clear is how pain affects performance on complex tasks, and the strategies used to ensure optimal outcomes. The aim of the current study was to examine the effect of pain on higher-order executive control processes involved in managing complex tasks. Sixty-two adult volunteers (40 female) completed two computer-based tasks: a breakfast making task and a word generation puzzle. Both were complex, involving executive control functions, including goal-directed planning and switching. Half of those recruited performed the tasks under conditions of thermal heat pain, and half with no accompanying pain. Whilst pain did not affect central performance on either task, it did have indirect effects. For the breakfast task, pain resulted in a decreased ability to multitask, with performance decrements found on the secondary task. However, no effects of pain were found on the processes thought to underpin this task. For the word generation puzzle, pain did not affect task performance, but did alter subjective accounts of the processes used to complete the task; pain affected the perceived allocation of time to the task, as well as switching perceptions. Sex differences were also found. When studying higher-order cognitive processes, pain-related interference effects are varied, and may result in subtle or indirect changes in cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere83272
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 30 Dec 2013


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