While researching the book Cure, science writer Jo Marchant wanted to understand how distraction could be used to nullify pain, so she participated in a virtual reality experiment.
During the first part of the experiment, Marchant sat, without distraction, with her foot in a box of unbearably hot water. “It felt like a very intense burning pain on my foot when I just experienced it on its own,” Marchant tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.
But then Marchant put on noise-canceling headphones and began to play a snow-and-ice-themed immersive video game that had been developed specifically for burn patients. This time, when the researcher applied the same burning pain to her foot, she barely noticed it.
“The researchers explained it as our brains only have a certain capacity for attention,” Marchant says. “If you’ve got something that’s really commanding your attention, there’s less attention left over for experiencing the pain.”
During the course of her research, Marchant also investigated the science behind the placebo effect, hypnosis, meditation, prayer and conditioning. She says that the healing power of the brain could offer a powerful complement to modern medicine. “That’s a whole different approach to pain that I think tells us that drugs aren’t the only answer,” she says.