In 2016, neuroscientists published a paper entitled, “Social Transfer of Pain In Mice” in Science Advances. The experiment tested pain experience and tolerance in three different groups of mice. The first group underwent controlled changes to have a more acute feeling of pain. The remaining two groups were unchanged.
Researchers then conducted a series of standard tests that allow the measurement of pain each felt. (The ethical merits of animal testing are not up for debate in this post.) Only a portion of the mice underwent anything causing pain. A controlled group of mice was left that neither underwent any changes nor had undergone tests causing pain.
The researchers were surprised to discover that a portion of the control group experienced pain. This only occurred with the control group mice that were roommates with those that experienced pain. To reiter, the mice under pain had effectively caused their roommates to experience pain. The authors theorize that the social transfer of pain occurred via smell.
The end result – Pain is contagious.
I can understand any skepticism around that conclusion and its relevance. Yet, how different are we as humans? Maybe, we transfer our pain, fear, and anxieties via smell. Maybe. I believe we might do it via more complicated manners, and those are not pretty in the long term for ourselves and others.
The transfer of pain does not merely exist in the lab or for mice. We have each experienced this in our personal lives. We can treat the ones we most cherish and love as our personal emotional punching bag almost irrespective of the topic.
We use words like “hangry” to describe an emotional state derived by a lack of fulfilling the lowest need in Maslov’s hierarchy.
We live in a world of road rage which fundamentally does not make sense. It effectively translates to – “I am pissed at someone cutting me off and putting me in danger. My response is to drastically and actively increase my risk and danger by being hostile to another car.” It’s an increase of our negative and pain while trying to spread it to another.
We have emotional bleed, and pain is contagious. So are anxiety and other negative emotions.
The world is scary right now. Life contains a level of uncertainty that many have not experienced since 2008 or perhaps 2001. An entire generation of adults, the Millenials, may only have faint whispers in their memories of there previous periods that have challenged us. I wrote about how the generations need each other more than ever, and that one of our greatest modern workplace challenges may be one of our greatest resources.
Pain can stem from the uncertainty in front of us. That is the danger zone. Are we really pissed at the person receiving our anger? Perhaps. At the level in which we are expressing it? Doubtful.
We have decisions to make in the midst of today’s chaos and increased emotion. Will we amplify the pain through ignorance? Will we amplify the pain through exaggeration? Will we amplify the pain, anxiety, and fear of others so we are in comparatively less pain to become the one-eyed man on the island of the blind. (The wild disbelief that pain is a zero-sum game.)
Another option is to lead our inner selves, our families, and our communities through this pain. Instead of doubling down on our infection, we can stop hurting ourselves and use this moment for personal growth. We can process the traumatic events in front of us and use it to come together with the love and cherish that unite us.
DISCLAIMER: I posted this and realized someone could think this is a passive-aggressive message to a person in particular. It is not. I am absolutely sure I have pissed people off and hurt people. I have relationships that could be healthier. I am human, and that statement is an explanation BUT not a reason or excuse. I have not heard from anyone, but if I did hurt you, I am truly sorry if I didn’t heed my own musings.