Published this week in Current Biology, a research group based at UCL showed that crossing your fingers may reduce the effect of pain.
The team used an experimental technique known as the thermal grill illusion which can induce painful sensations without resulting in tissue damage. The experiment uses a pattern stimuli in the order of warm, cold, warm to the index, middle and ring finger respectively. This can result in a sensation of burning heat on the middle finger despite the fact it is receiving a cold stimuli.
This effect is caused by the three way interaction between the nerve pathways which inform the brain about warmth, cold and pain. The warm stimuli of the index and ring finger block the brain activity that would usually be driven by the cold stimuli of the middle finger. The cold stimuli would usually inhibit the painful effect but the elimination of the input increases the pain signal.
The researchers discovered that by crossing the middle finger over the index finger the pain was reduced. If, however, the middle was crossed over the index finger and the stimuli were changed to cool for the index and warm for the middle and ring finger the pain increased on crossing. Therefore the team were able to show that the interaction of the thermal grill illusion was only as a result of the fingers spatial arrangement.
The senior author Professor Haggard pointed out that these findings could be useful to those who suffer from chronic pain. He explained, ‘Pain levels could be manipulated by applying additional stimuli, and by moving one part of the body relative to others. Changing the spatial pattern of interacting inputs could have an effect on the brain pathways that underlie pain perception.”