Uncertainty Increases Pain: Evidence for a Novel Mechanism of Pain Modulation Involving the Periaqueductal Gray

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Predictions about sensory input exert a dominant effect on what we perceive, and this is particularly true for the experience of pain. However, it remains unclear what component of prediction, from an information-theoretic perspective, controls this effect. We used a vicarious pain observation paradigm to study how the underlying statistics of predictive information modulate experience. Subjects observed judgments that a group of people made to a painful thermal stimulus, before receiving the same stimulus themselves. We show that the mean observed rating exerted a strong assimilative effect on subjective pain. In addition, we show that observed uncertainty had a specific and potent hyperalgesic effect. Using computational functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that this effect correlated with activity in the periaqueductal gray. Our results provide evidence for a novel form of cognitive hyperalgesia relating to perceptual uncertainty, induced here by vicarious observation, with control mediated by the brainstem pain modulatory system.

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