How Is Pain Influenced by Cognition? Neuroimaging Weighs In

Citation: Wager, T.D. & Atlas, L.Y. (2013) How Is Pain Influenced by Cognition? Neuroimaging Weighs In. Perspectives on Psychological Science. vol. 8(1): 91-97

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Neuroimaging can inform cognitive theories to the extent that particular patterns of brain activity are sensitively and specifically associated with particular types of cognitive processes. We illustrate the utility of neuroimaging data in one specific case: understanding cognitive influences on pain. We first argue that pain self-reports are often inadequate to fully characterize pain experience and the processes that underlie it. Then, we describe how neuroimaging measures have been used to corroborate the effects of psychological manipulations on pain by focusing on placebo treatments and demonstrating effects on the best available correlates of pain experience. In addition, using placebo analgesia as an example, we argue that brain evidence is useful for building psychological theories likely to yield valid and generalizable predictions, because biologically informed theories are grounded in the constraints inherent in the relevant physiological systems. Finally, we suggest that neuroimaging findings will become increasingly useful for constraining psychological inference as brain patterns diagnostic of particular types of mental events are identified and characterized. In our view, the relationships between biological findings and cognitive theory are empirically based and must develop through an iterative process of synthesis across studies, topics, and methods.