08/08/2011 12:13 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2011

Pain? What Pain?

Even how we feel physical pain depends on context.

I went for a morning run today and it was clear from the start that it was going to be a struggle. Almost immediately, that pesky ache in my left foot announced its off-and-on presence with authority, and I knew it would be a battle of mind over matter to get through my usual distance.

But then something unexpected happened. The skies opened up and it started to pour rain. Not a passing summer thunderstorm, but a full-on, get-your-animals-to-the-ark deluge that wound up lasting several hours. My mind started racing...

Would the phone strapped to my arm get wet through its case?

What's the best route to take to avoid the inch-deep puddles quickly forming all over?

Should I stop under cover to text my wife to tell her I'm OK?

And when was the last time I checked the basement sump pump, anyway?

Before I knew it, I was home. The rain was certainly enough to jolt me out of the routine of my every-other-day run, but it did even more than that: I had totally forgotten about the pain in my foot.

The idea that there's a mental component to pain is hardly an unfamiliar one. You don't have to be well-versed in any research literature to know about, say, the power of the placebo effect in medical intervention or the experience of post-amputation phantom limb pain.

And the notion that pain varies by context isn't too novel either: we've all read about people who have managed to perform amazing feats of heroism or self-preservation in the face of great pain or physical impairment.

But the more you learn about it, the full extent to which our experience with pain depends on situations is surprising. Just check out David Epstein's great article in this week's Sports Illustrated, entitled "The Truth About Pain: It's In Your Head." The piece includes several compelling real-life stories of athletes persevering over pain-inducing circumstances (no, I must admit, my morning jog through the rain doesn't make the cut), and an even greater number of fascinating tidbits from scientific research on pain, including:

  • A study of Scottish terriers raised in isolation from the outside world, who would repeat ostensibly painful collisions with immovable objects over and over again in cartoon-like fashion, oblivious to any discomfort. Apparently they had missed the critical developmental period in which dogs learn about pain and how to react to it.
  • Research on college athletes that has revealed them to be less sensitive to pain on the day of a competition as opposed to two days before or after their scheduled games.
  • Studies that have found that cyclists become able to withstand a greater amount of pain the more familiar they grow with the course they're on. Knowing what to expect ahead-as well as simply how much of that ahead is left-enables them to ride through discomfort. Deprive the cyclists of this knowledge-that is, keep them in the dark regarding how far they have gone or have left to go-and the opposite occurs.

It's a really interesting read that speaks once more to the underrated role that context plays in our daily lives. As the title of my forthcoming book suggests, Situations Matter. Even for the most internal and intimate of experiences, like forming a sense of identity, falling in love, and, yes, feeling pain.

Like this post? Then check out the website for "Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World" (available now for pre-order). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below: