The interruptive effect of pain on attention

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Abstract

Pain is known to disrupt attentional performance in both healthy adults and patients with chronic pain. Exactly which aspects of attentional function are affected are, however, still to be determined. The primary aim of this investigation was to systematically examine the effects of experimentally induced pain on a range of attentional performance tasks. Following a review of tests of attentional disruption, seven best candidate tasks were selected and examined across seven experiments. The tasks were: continuous performance, flanker, endogenous precueing, n-back, inhibition, attentional switching, and divided attention. Healthy adult participants performed each of these tasks under three different conditions: a painful heat sensation, a warm heat sensation, and a nonheat control. Pain differentially affected attentional performance across these tasks; pain-related attentional impairment was found on the n-back, attentional switching, and divided attention tasks, but not on the other tasks. This finding suggests that the aspects of attention most affected by pain are those essential for the completion of complex tasks that require the processing of multiple cues and control over attentional deployment. These results are discussed in the context of an emerging view of pain as a demand for executive control and the development of measures that could be used to examine attentional disruption in the context of pain.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)565-586
Number of pages22
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Volume65
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2012

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