Cognitive load selectively influences the interruptive effect of pain on attention

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Abstract

Pain is known to interrupt attentional performance. Such interference effects seem to occur preferentially for tasks that are complex and/or difficult. However, few studies have directly manipulated memory load in the context of pain interference to test this view. Therefore, this study examines the effect of experimental manipulations of both memory load and pain on 3 tasks previously found to be sensitive to pain interference. Three experiments were conducted. A different task was examined in each experiment, each comprising of a high- and low-cognitive load versions of the task. Experiment 1 comprised an attention span (n-back) task, experiment 2 an attention switching task, and experiment 3 a divided attention task. Each task was conducted under painful and nonpainful conditions. Within the pain condition, an experimental thermal pain induction protocol was administered at the same time participants completed the task. The load manipulations were successful in all experiments. Pain-related interference occurred under the high-load condition but only for the attention span task. No effect of pain was found on either the attentional switching or divided attention task. These results suggest that while cognitive load may influence the interruptive effect of pain on attention, this effect may be selective. Because pain affected the high-load version of the n-back task but did not interrupt performance on attentional switching or dual-task paradigms, this means that our findings did not completely support our hypotheses. Future research should explore further the parameters and conditions under which pain-related interference occurs.

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